I was bothered by the story this week about pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline being fined $3 billion for the way it promoted its products. In the largest health fraud settlement in US history, the company pleaded guilty to promoting two popular drugs for unapproved uses (Paxil and Wellbutrin) and failing to disclose safety information on a third drug (Avandia).

Essentially, GSK lied to doctors and consumers about what the drugs were for, just to sell more pills.

Part of the DOJ’s evidence was video of a GSK sales meeting, where reps from all over the country got together in a huge ballroom. On the stage, GSK executives excitedly told the crowd about the drugs like Steve Jobs introducing the iPad. A company official convinced them they’d all get rich by pushing these pills, at one point even asking the sales force, “Who wants to be a millionaire?”

You’ve probably seen pharmaceutical sales reps walking into your physician’s office while you’re waiting for your appointment. Often, they get to go in before you to do their spiel behind closed doors. In GSK’s case, they weren’t just leaving behind samples, but inducing doctors to prescribe one or another of the company’s drugs by offering them bribes — junkets to Hawaii, tickets to concerts, etc. In many cases, at the company’s direction, reps weren’t honest with doctors about what the drugs did or the dangers in prescribing them to the wrong people. For instance, they convinced doctors to give Paxil, an anti-depressant for adults, to children under 18, even though they had test results showing that Paxil caused suicidal thoughts in kids. They kept promoting it that way for 5 years.

They also promoted another powerful antidpressant, Wellbutrin, as a weight-loss pill and a cure for sexual dysfunction, substance addiction, and ADHD — despite being approved by the FDA solely for people with serious depressive orders. Plenty of people have mental health issues, and there’s nothing wrong with a drug that helps you overcome the screwy chemistry inside your head. But there is something wrong when doctors prescribe it for problems unrelated to mental health, as they did at the behest of the GSK salesforce.

This is a simple matter of ethics and morality. The company’s sales managers stood on that stage hyping products as if it were an Amway meeting, except instead of household cleaners and containers for leftovers, the products were pharmaceuticals, which can be dangerous if prescribed for the wrong reasons (such as a pair of seats at a Madonna concert). GSK says this all happened years ago, and it did — the late 1990s and early 2000s. But are we to believe this culture doesn’t still exist at the company, and at others in Big Pharma? And how complicit were the physicians? Did their avarice and desire for free stuff override their allegiance to the Hippocratic Oath?

Sure, pharmaceutical companies and medical doctors are in the business of making money, but they’re supposed to do that by making people healthier, not by turning patients into victims. A $3 billion fine seems like a lot of money, but it’s nothing more than a wrist-slap for a multi-national corporation that made $28 billion from those three drugs alone while it stepped far across the ethical line.

Now, whenever I see a commercial for GlaxoSmithKline or its Big Pharma colleagues pushing some drug I’ve never heard of, I’m going to imagine the announcer, in a sudden fit of honesty, imploring me to “Ask your doctor about Greed!”

Previously on Harris Online…