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Ghostwriting and Hormone Therapy

On Friday, Judge Wilson of the U.S. District Court for Arkansas ordered the unsealing of Wyeth documents regarding the company’s practice of “ghostwriting.” Wyeth has been the subject of much litigation for many years over hormone therapy drugs (Prempro and Premarin) that were routinely prescribed to post-menopausal women. Innumerable studies have been published showing that these drugs cause breast cancer. Wilson is currently shepherding over 8,000 hormone therapy cases.

Front-and-center in the litigation is the advertising method that Wyeth used. Ghostwriting is an insidious practice, where a drug company will pay a doctor for the right to use his or her name on a publication that the drug company writes to tout the benefits of their product. The publication is typically written by the marketing department, but disguised to look like science. Then, drug company sales representatives take that publication to other doctors, and say, “Dr. Smith wrote a terrific article about our drug—he likes it and affirms that it is safe, so you should prescribe it to your patients.” Needless to say, it’s never disclosed to the doctors that Dr. Smith didn’t write the article, or that the drug company did.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys used the documents in litigation, but they were marked confidential. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa obtained copies last year for an investigation by the Senate Finance Committee, evaluating physician influence by drug companies. Prompting the unsealing, the New York Times has requested copies, and the unsealing of these documents will allow the public to see what really goes on behind the closed doors of drug companies. This is a small victory for corporate accountability.