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Children, soft money and McProzac

August 18, 1997 [ Printer-friendly version ]

President Clinton's proposal last week that pharmaceutical companies test all drugs likely to be prescribed for children brought to the forefront once again the unsettling issue of children and antidepressants.

What is particularly chilling is the masterly way Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of Prozac, is continuing to present itself as an innocent bystander in the process to gain Food and Drug Administration approval for pediatric antidepressants. I was recently on a radio show with Lilly representative Dr. Gary Tollefson, who talked in measured tones about Lilly's "partnership with the academic community," "peer review medical journals" and the need to establish "whether the benefits outweigh the risks." This, at the very moment when Lilly has signed up Leo Burnett of Chicago, the ad agency handling Reebok and McDonald's, to target consumers directly.

Lilly's public stance is of a civic-minded company whose sole concern is the well-being of children -- especially the millions of children whose quiet suffering could come to an end by imbibing peppermint-flavored Prozac.

Meanwhile, through its extremely active political action committee, Lilly makes sure that elected officials in Washington will not be asking too many questions about Prozac and children. In the last 10 years, the PAC has made several hundred contributions to federal campaigns -- among them those of Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, Trent Lott, Chris Dodd and members of the House Commerce subcommittee on health.

Lilly has also become expert at the soft-money game. The company went from zero soft-money contributions in the 1992 election cycle to $746,675 in 1996. When asked to explain this burst of generosity, Lilly spokesman Jeff Newton replied: "We do it because we think we have to participate in the political process. ... We give to both parties. They are important institutions, basically, and that's why we do it."

Lilly's money is not wasted. Seeking to clarify the company's role in the pediatric drug approval process, I called members of Congress supposed to be keeping the FDA and pharmaceutical giants on the straight and narrow. A staff member of one congressman admitted bluntly, off the record, that his boss would not contact the FDA to ask questions about Lilly because he had received campaign contributions from the firm.

Fortunately, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a member of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, does not receive Lilly money. When Kucinich asked the FDA for information, the agency responded by citing F-D-C Reports, which covers the drug industry: "Prozac is being studied by Eli Lilly and Co. (the sponsor) as an antidepressant for use in patients under 18 years of age and ... a pre-N.D.A. (New Drug Application) filing' was made."

That directly contradicts the passive stance that Lilly has been assuming for public consumption -- including in a letter sent to me and every newspaper that published my column critical of pushing Prozac on kids.

This letter is part of a well-orchestrated, cold-blooded attempt summed up by Lilly executive Christina Hendricks: "We go after those people," she told a drug industry conference in May, referring to anyone who dares be disrespectful of Prozac, even in greeting cards, "with a very serious intent to get them to cease and desist from their activities." Any attack on Prozac is being countered as "belittling those suffering from depression."

Lilly's damage-control strategies include secret settlements with plaintiffs regarding Prozac's adverse effects. The latest occurred in Louisville, Ky., where Lilly quietly reached agreement with the families of the victims of a Prozac user who killed eight and wounded 12 in a printing-plant shooting spree. Two dozen more lawsuits are pending. Nor is that all. Lilly had to plead guilty to criminal charges and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines after concealing from the FDA the fact that patients in Britain had died after taking Oraflex -- another Lilly drug.

Lilly has also found itself in hot water over the accuracy of its clinical trials, when the company was discovered using homeless alcoholics shortly after drinking binges. And last month, this paragon of civic-mindedness had to settle litigation with retail pharmacy and supermarket chains.

Now the massive pharmaceutical company, whose 1996 profits were $1.52 billion, is cynically planning an expansion into the children's market while pretending it is not and dosing Congress into docility with money soft and hard.

"Lilly's proactive approach to media management may be smoothing the way for antidepressants in children," F-D-C Reports observed this year. Indeed. Dr. Tollefson appeared on National Public Radio in May to tell listeners that adult depression "often begins in children and adolescents."

What mom or dad would condemn their young one to a life of depression when, with kiddie Prozac, the Kodachrome perfection of an American childhood could be at hand? Watch out, America. That's how they gild the lily at Lilly. They talk obsessively about the relatively few children with serious depression, while leaving out the millions of kids whose growing brains are being meddled with even though there is no clear medical knowledge of the long-term effects of Prozac.

Next time you hear a Lilly executive talking about improving childhood through chemistry, remember that he stands to make huge profits by getting kids hooked on Lilly drugs. Last year, Lilly CEO Randall Tobias took home $6.68 million in compensation, a 75 percent increase over the previous year. "Executive compensation at Lilly is tied closely to company performance," a company spokesman helpfully explained.

Oh? And how, precisely, does this incentive plan -- growing wealthier by expanding the market of restless and troubled kids medicating themselves against life's emotional roller coaster -- differ from that of the Cali cartel?

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