Court records unsealed Monday allege that a major pharmaceutical company paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to one of America’s most recognizable celebrity doctors, Dr. Drew Pinsky—known as Dr. Drew—to promote a prescription drug for uses not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The details emerged as part of the record $3 billion civil and criminal settlement by drug maker GlaxoSmithKline with the U.S. Department of Justice. The charges against Glaxo include paying kickbacks to doctors, and misrepresenting the effects of several drugs to the government and the public.
One of Glaxo’s blockbuster drugs was Wellbutrin, which was approved by the FDA to treat depression. Starting in 1999, the Justice Department says, the company “engaged in a nationwide scheme” to promote the drug to treat other conditions including weight problems, addictions, and sexual dysfunction. Pinsky was one of the experts paid to tout Wellbutrin, according to the complaint filed against Glaxo by government prosecutors.
The host of a slew of TV shows including Dr. Drew, Lifechangers, and Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, Pinsky was already a minor celebrity back in 1999 as the co-host of Loveline, a radio and TV call-in show focusing on sex and addiction. The show had moved to MTV in 1996, where his co-host, wise-cracking Adam Corolla, played the comic relief. One reporter wrote in 2000 that “When Dr. Drew Pinsky talks—about sex or drugs or relationships—young people listen.”
The federal complaint says Cooney Waters, a public-relations firm hired by Glaxo to promote Wellbutrin, “hired Dr. Drew Pinsky from MTV and Loveline as a spokesperson to deliver messages about WBSR [Wellbutrin] in settings where it did not appear that Dr. Pinsky was speaking for WBSR.”
In the court filings, neither Pinsky nor Cooney Waters is accused of or charged with any wrongdoing, and the Justice Department declined to discuss specific doctors mentioned in the suit. A spokeswoman for Glaxo said the complaint refers to events in 1999, and “does not reflect what would be allowed in GSK today.” She said “GSK admits that during the period from January 1999 to December 2003, there were some occasions on which certain GSK sales representatives, speakers, and consultants promoted its antidepressant Wellbutrin to physicians for uses which were not FDA-approved in violation of federal law.” However, she added, “GSK does not admit or agree with the remaining allegations in the civil settlement agreement or the various complaints that GSK violated the law in its promotion of Wellbutrin.”
Spokespeople for Cooney Waters didn’t return emails or phone calls seeking comment. Valerie Allen, a spokeswoman for Pinsky, declined to comment, and said she would be releasing a statement on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for HLN, which airs the Dr. Drew show, declined to comment, saying only that the network hired Pinsky in 2010 and any activity referred to in the government's complaint took place well before that.
Included in the court records released Monday are invoices from Cooney Waters to Glaxo for Pinsky totaling $275,000. An invoice for $100,000 from March 1999 is described as, “Honoraria—Dr. Drew Pinsky/1st Installment.” An April 1999 invoice lists a “2nd installment” of $175,000.
The federal government’s complaint against Glaxo says that that Pinsky appeared on “a national radio show” and discussed the company’s “campaign messages” about Wellbutrin.
According to the government, Pinsky said one of the ingredients in Wellbutrin “could explain a woman suddenly having 60 orgasms in one night.” The complaint against Glaxo says “Dr. Pinsky explained that one of the things he advocates for people experiencing diminished libido or arousal” is Wellbutrin.
“Dr. Pinsky communicated key campaign messages” about Wellbutrin, read a 1999 memo from Cooney Waters that was attached to court files.
Paul Thacker, a former staffer for Senator Charles Grassley, who worked on Grassley’s investigation into Glaxo’s marketing techniques, and later worked for the Project on Government Oversight, says he never knew until now of allegations that Pinsky may have taken money from Glaxo. “I grew up listening to this guy in college,” Thacker says. “Dr. Drew was how kids in college in California learned about sex, drugs, and mental-health issues. Someone like Dr. Drew has the ear of young people in this country and I think this shows he abused that trust.”
UPDATE: After this was published, Dr. Pinsky's press representative forwarded this statement to The Daily Beast:
“In the late 90s I was hired to participate in a two-year initiative discussing intimacy and depression which was funded by an educational grant by Glaxo Wellcome. Services for the nonbranded campaign included town-hall meetings, writings, and multimedia activities in conjunction with the patient advocacy group the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association (NDMDA). My comments were consistent with my clinical experience.”