Pfizer, Inc. recently settled a wrongful death suit involving the suicide of a minister who had taken Pfizer’s epilepsy drug, Neurontin, for only a couple of months. In that case, the minister’s family contended that Pfizer had promoted off-label marketing of the drug to people suffering from chronic pain without properly warning patients that the drug had been found in some studies to cause depression and increased thoughts of suicide. Although doctors may prescribe a drug for off-label use (which is a use for which the drug was not specifically approved by the FDA), a drug company is not permitted to promote or market its drugs for off-label use. In this case, the minister’s physician prescribed Neurontin for treatment of chronic pain, not for treatment of epilepsy for which the drug had been approved by the FDA.
This is the second case Pfizer has settled involving claims that the drug manufacturer knew of the suicide risk associated with Neurontin and failed to disclose it to doctors and patients. Pfizer currently faces more than 1000 lawsuits involving similar claims of unlawfully marketing Neurontin for non-approved uses. Former company officials have now come forward to testify about these issues.
A Boston jury recently returned a $140 million verdict over Pfizer’s marketing practices. In addition, Pfizer’s subsidiary, Warner-Lambert, which developed the drug, pleaded guilty to criminal charges filed by the U.S. government and paid a $430 million fine in 2004. In that case, company officials acknowledged the company had utilized deceptive, off-label marketing practices.