For more than a quarter-century, Dr. Drew Pinsky has been a seemingly tireless talker, an interpreter of maladies for audiences on radio, television and the Internet.
The ubiquitous physician with the California-cool vibe, the trim physique and the hipster eyewear has been a television doctor to rehabbing celebs and, in the process, has become a celeb himself.
(Damian Dovarganes/AP) - Drew Pinsky, shown in 2008, has spent more than 25 years dispensing advice.
And now, with the Dr. Drew brand firmly embedded in the national consciousness — at a moment when he regularly spins out best-selling books and hosts or co-hosts not just one, but three shows — Pinsky is becoming a clinical specimen for that most basic of capitalist afflictions: subtle hucksterism. Buried in a gargantuan Justice Department settlement announced this week with the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline are details of a sweet deal Pinsky cut to promote the depression drug Wellbutrin, also known by the name Bupropion.
Pinsky isn’t charged in the Glaxo case, which resulted in a corporate guilty plea and a record $3 billion settlement for fraudulently hawking unapproved uses of the diabetes drug Avandia and the depression medicines Wellbutrin and Paxil. But his entanglement in the case illustrates the ethically murky knitting of physicians (and their bank accounts) with drug companies, a fraught relationship that reformers have sought to address by adding sunshine provisions to the Obama administration’s health-care law, which recently survived mostly intact after a Supreme Court challenge.
A federal court complaint can be nettlesome even for those who are not charged, and in the Glaxo case, the probe has cast a kind of cloud over Pinsky’s credibility. It all tracks back to the late 1990s. In those days, Wellbutrin was being furtively promoted as a drug that could not only treat depression but also enhance a patient’s sex life and help with weight loss. The company’s sales representatives sometimes referred to Wellbutrin as the “happy, horny, skinny pill,” according to the Justice Department. In March and April 1999, according to receipts unearthed by federal investigators, Pinsky was paid a total of $275,000 by Glaxo Wellcome, the GlaxoSmithKline precursor that manufactured Wellbutrin.
The next month, he went on a national radio program, “David Essel — Alive!” A high-fiving public relations memo memorializes how Pinsky delivered for his corporate clients. Pinsky “communicated key campaign messages” on the show, the memo reads, chief among them the notion that Wellbutrin “is recommended for people experiencing a loss of libido.” The memo, though, is nothing compared with the transcript of the radio program that the feds included in the voluminous court record.
The program’s highlight is a claim by a 34-year-old woman who says she had 60 orgasms in a single night. The show’s host asks Pinsky: “What type of a medication would increase someone’s orgasmic potential, where they go from three or four to 60?” Pinsky responds that lots of antidepressants could do the trick, but the one he advocates is Bupropion or Wellbutrin because it “may enhance or at least not suppress sexual arousal” as much as other antidepressants. The transcript does not include any references to Pinsky’s deal with the drugmaker. The problem with making a claim about the drug’s supposed ability to juice a patient’s sexual performance is that Wellbutrin was approved for use in treating depression, not as a sexual enhancement.