Pfizer Inc. will pay $55 million plus interest to resolve allegations that Wyeth LLC illegally introduced and caused the introduction into interstate commerce of a misbranded drug, Protonix, between February 2000 and June 2001, the Justice Department announced today.
Wyeth manufactured and promoted Protonix tablets. Protonix is a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) that was used by physicians to treat various forms of gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD). Wyeth sought and obtained approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to promote Protonix for short-term treatment of erosive esophagitis–a condition associated with GERD that can only be diagnosed with an invasive endoscopy. However, the government alleges that Wyeth fully intended to, and did, promote Protonix for all forms of GERD, including symptomatic GERD, which was far more common and could be diagnosed without an endoscopy.
Under the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, manufacturers must obtain FDA approval for any indication for use for which a manufacturer intends to market a drug. A drug is misbranded if its labeling does not bear adequate directions for use by a layman safely and for the purposes for which it is intended. A prescription drug must be prescribed by a physician and is only exempt from the adequate directions for use requirement if a number of conditions are met, including that the manufacturer only intended to sell that drug for an FDA-approved use. A prescription drug marketed for unapproved off-label uses does not qualify for the exemption and is misbranded.
As alleged in the government’s complaint, Wyeth’s illegal promotional campaign for Protonix was multi-faceted. Before Wyeth even began promoting Protonix, the FDA warned Wyeth that its proposed promotional materials were misleading because Wyeth had “overstated” its “erosive esophagitis indication” by “suggesting that Protonix is safe and effective in the treatment of patients with . . . GERD. Protonix is not indicated for treatment of GERD symptoms that occur in the absence of esophageal erosions.” Despite the FDA’s admonishment, the government alleges that Wyeth trained its sales force to promote Protonix for all forms of GERD, beyond its limited erosive esophagitis indication, and that Wyeth sales representatives frequently promoted Protonix to physicians for unapproved uses, such as symptomatic GERD.
In addition, Wyeth allegedly promoted Protonix as the “best PPI for nighttime heartburn.” even though there was never any clinical evidence that Protonix was more effective than any other PPI for nighttime heartburn. The allegations in the complaint are that this superiority slogan was formulated at the highest levels of the company. Wyeth retained an outside market research firm, at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars, to ensure that sales representatives delivered that misleading superiority message.
Finally, the government alleges that Wyeth used continuing medical education (CME) programs to promote Protonix for unapproved uses. CME programs are sponsored by accredited independent providers, such as universities, nonprofit organizations, or specialty societies. Pharmaceutical companies are permitted to provide financial support for CME programs, but they are not permitted to use CME programs as promotional vehicles for off-label indications. According to the complaint, Wyeth spent millions of dollars providing “unrestricted educational grants” to CME providers, and these grants invariably included promises that Wyeth would not attempt to influence the content of the program in any way. Nevertheless, the government alleges that one of Wyeth’s core marketing tactics for Protonix was to use CME programs to drive off-label use of the drug. According to the complaint, the Protonix “brand team” influenced virtually every aspect of these CME programs: program topics, speaker selection, organization, and content. In addition, the government alleges that Wyeth even insisted that the CME program materials use the same color and appearance as Protonix promotional materials–a tactic that Wyeth and the vendor called “branducation.”
“Today’s settlement once again demonstrates our commitment to making sure drug manufacturers follow the rules,” said Stuart Delery, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. “Drug manufacturers should not be permitted to profit from misbranding their products; the disgorgement remedy here ensures that this does not happen in this case.”
“Wyeth tried to cheat the system by obtaining a limited FDA approval for Protonix, fully intending to promote this drug for additional, unapproved uses,” said U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz. “Wyeth ignored the FDA’s warning not to promote Protonix off-label, and then went so far as to contaminate CME programs that physicians rely on for unbiased, independent scientific information. Today’s settlement reinforces this office’s historic commitment to holding drug companies responsible for their misconduct.”
This case was litigated by Assistant U.S. Attorneys David Schumacher and Susan Winkler of Ortiz’s Health Care Fraud Unit, together with former Trial Attorney Kevin Larsen and Deputy Director Jill Furman in the Department of Justice Consumer Protection Branch. This case was investigated by the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations; the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the FBI.
This civil complaint and settlement resolve the United States’ investigation of Wyeth related to the promotion of Protonix for unapproved uses. The claims settled by this agreement are allegations only, allegations which Pfizer denies; there has been no determination of liability. Pfizer acquired Wyeth in October 2009. Since August 2009, Pfizer has been under a Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services, which agreement remains in effect.