Yesterday the pharmaceutical behemoth Pfizer agreed to pay 2.3 billion dollars to settle civil and criminal lawsuits that alleged it illegally marketed Bextra, its arthritis drug, which has since been withdrawn from the market due to concerns that it caused severe skin reactions and contributed to clotting event, including heart attacks and strokes. Pfizer, which is in the midst of a deal to acquire the pharmaceutical manufacturer Wyeth, agreed to this settlement ending the litigation that stemmed form the illegal marketing accusations.

Despite the high award, the amount represents less than 3 weeks of drug sales at the giant. This was also the fourth time that Pfizer has been forced to settle charges of illegal marketing since 2002. Amy Schulman, Pfizers General Counsel, said that Pfizer had reformed—again. A former Pfizer sales representative—a professional hired by a drug company to sell doctors on his companys products—whose information was critical in the illegal marketing lawsuit, told the New York Times that the whole culture of Pfizer is driven by sales, and if you didnt sell drugs illegally, you were not seen as a team player.

Consumer groups, while lauding the fine Pfizer must pay, said that illegal marketing practices continue to be rife within the industry. Almost every major pharmaceutical company has been charged with illegal marketing over the last few years. The trend is so alarming that governmental prosecutors have been seeking ever larger awards and have said that vigorous prosecution of doctors will also be sought.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former top F.D.A. official in the Bush administration who now consults for drug makers, said that government prosecutors were increasingly criminalizing what reasonable people might argue is a reasonable exchange of important clinical information between drug companies and doctors.

What does this mean for all of us consumers? As I noted in my blog post of August 28, its up to consumers to ask doctors if the FDA has approved the drug for the condition that needs the medication. And if not, why, if the FDA has not approved it for the condition, is this drug right one.

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