Former Eli Lilly Drug Rep Details Marketing Efforts

Eli Lilly is at the epicenter of illegal pharmaceutical marketing practice lawsuits and, yesterday, Congress heard from a former Eli Lilly representative about even more questionable practices that drug maker employed.

The former rep told a Senate committee that Eli Lilly and other drug companies hire ex-cheerleaders, models, and jocks to schmooze with doctors, exaggerate the benefits of the drugs they sell, and minimize <"">drug risks. “You drink the Kool-Aid,” said Shahram Ahari, who spent two years as a rep for Prozac and Zyprexa, according to ABC News.  “We were taught to minimize the side effects, how to use conversational ploys to minimize it or change the topic.”

Ahari said he received specific “How To” training in a variety of areas, including:

•    How to get around spending limits for important clients
•    How to use free samples to increase sales
•    How to create a quid pro quo using personal gifts and friendships
•    How to exploit sexual tension with clients

Ahari said the efforts were very successful and he could refer to “many times” when his clients would prescribe more of the drugs he repped “not based on the merits of my arguments but because we shared dinner at a fancy Manhattan restaurant.”  Eli Lilly responded by saying that Ahari’s examples were exaggerated; a spokesman emphasized that his testimony didn’t allege any specific product misconduct.  Ahari’s testimony comes in the midst of senators considering development of a federal sales force that could counteract biased drug company sales pitches with objective, medical information.  Unfortunately, big pharmaceutical has much more money—billions—than the government’s marketing budget.

Last month, two shareholders accused Eli Lilly of recklessly disregarding risks posed by illegal drug marketing practices related to its anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa.  Now, Connecticut’s Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, is suing Eli Lilly over the marketing of Zyprexa.  At least nine other states are suing Eli Lilly for similar reasons; federal prosecutors are involved and reportedly in talks over a large settlement with the drug giant. Connecticut is looking to recover over $190 million it spent on Zyprexa over many years on the grounds that Eli Lilly illegally marketed Zyprexa for unapproved uses and concealed its risks.  “The illegal marketing campaign exploited children and senior citizens—causing severe weight gain, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “This scheme involved payments to public officials, bogus educational events, and ghostwritten promotional articles summarizing suspect studies.”

Eli Lilly has paid over $1 billion to settle thousands of legal battles and critics allege Eli Lilly failed to warn consumers about the potential for diabetes or weight gain associated with Zyprexa, which realized sales of $4.8 billion last year.  Eli Lilly faces lawsuits from some third-party payers accusing Eli Lilly of promoting Zyprexa’s off-label use for treatments not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  A complaint filed in Utah, for instance, accuses Eli Lilly of persuading doctors to prescribe Zyprexa for conditions such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, and depression.  Doctors are free to prescribe drugs for uses not approved by the FDA—off-label uses—however, pharmaceutical companies are prohibited by law from marketing drugs for non FDA-approved uses.

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