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Lesson From Pfizer: Don't Describe Your Product as "Snake Oil" in Internal Email

Pfizer (PFE), which just lost a $142.1 million lawsuit over its controversial anti-seizure drug Neurontin, offers the business world an important object lesson: don't describe your own product as "the 'snake oil' of the twentieth century" in internal email.

It's not the only Pfizer memo that has emerged describing executives' internally expressed doubts about the efficacy of the drug. In a different case, former Pfizer vp/neuroscience Atul Pande wrote a memo in that said there was "negligible evidence" for Neurontin's use as an antidepressant.

Both memos have come back to bite Pfizer once they were discovered by lawyers suing the company.

Yesterday's case was brought by the Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, who claim they were misled into believing the drug was appropriate for migraines and bipolar disorder. The Oakland, Calif.-based insurer alleged it was forced to pay $90 million more than it should have for the drug. Although Neurontin was primarily a seizure control drug, it became widely prescribed for the unapproved uses in pain and depression. Some estimate that "off-label" sales of Neurontin are up to 94 percent of all sales.

The email was written in 1999 by Christopher Wohlberg, Pfizer's executive medical director/global medical team leader at Pfizer for over 10 years and currently its vp of primary care. At the time, Neurontin (also known by its chemical name, gabapentin) was owned by Warner-Lambert, a company Pfizer acquired in 2000. It says:

Thanks for the information, John. Gabapentin is the 'snake oil' of the twentieth century. It has been reported to be successful in just about everything that they have studied.
(Click to enlarge.) The email almost did not make it into the case. It was only produced by Pfizer in late January 2010, after the plaintiffs learned of its existence from lawyers in a different case against Pfizer. The Kaiser case was filed in 2004. Funny how these things sometimes get lost in the shuffle!

Pfizer told Reuters it will appeal:

"We are disappointed with the verdict and will pursue post-trial motions and an appeal," Pfizer spokesman Chris Loder said in a statement. "The verdict and the judge's rulings are not consistent with the facts and the law."
"Kaiser itself continues to recommend Neurontin for the same uses they sought recovery for in this case. Kaiser's own physicians and several of their expert witnesses prescribed Neurontin for their patients based on their sound medical judgment," Loder said.
Related: Image by Flickr user waa, CC.
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