Xanax junkies

By CYNTHIA COTTS  |  November 19, 2007

Early last year a faithful tribe of professionals was invited to a symposium called “Triplicate Prescription: Issues and Answers.” The symposium was sponsored by the Medical Society of the State of New York (MSSNY) and was funded in part by an “unrestricted grant” from Upjohn to the nonprofit arm of the society.

On February 28, 1991, prominent doctors and patient advocates convened in a New York City hotel. They argued that New York’s program had kept patients from getting their tranquilizers — and had stigmatized them to boot. One speaker, Dr. Michael Weintraub, of the University of Rochester, explained how a study he performed “proves” that in New York doctors are prescribing inappropriate drugs to patients who need benzos. Weintraub’s study, which Levin calls “junk,” was partially underwritten by Hoffmann-La Roche.

The one-sidedness of the symposium left some participants confused. What about the advantages — the Medicaid savings, the drying up of the black market? “Maybe I was too naïve,” one audience member recalls,” but I was looking for a spirited debate.” (According to Michael Delaney, of MSSNY, state health officials declined to attend.)

In February 1991 the society released a 16-page symposium report, “News of New York,” that proclaimed the failure of trip scrip. The report parroted Upjohn’s official objections to trip scrip: it doesn’t cure drug abuse, it stops patients from getting medication, it’s too expensive. Soon after publication, copies came into the hands of the Committee for Responsible Use of Psychiatric Medication, a nonprofit organization of medical professionals that is funded by Upjohn. The committee attached a cover letter to “News of New York” and commenced a mass mailing to medical professionals and lawmakers nationwide. Upjohn’s name did not appear anywhere.

One lawmaker was curious about the committee’s home office in New York: 114 Fifth Avenue, (212) 886-3125. When he called, a recorded message invited him to press zero. A receptionist answered, “GTFH. Can I help you?” Gross Townsend Frank Hoffman — 114 Fifth Avenue, (212) 886-3100 — is a PR agency specializing in health care. Upjohn is one of its clients.

According to Upjohn spokeswoman Florence Steinberg, “The committee has sent out mailings on a variety of issues.” She acknowledged that Gross Townsend “helped put together the materials” in the symposium package but added, “The committee and MSSNY are totally separate.”

Ultimately, the committee’s mailing served Upjohn’s political purposes: it helped prevent New York’s experiment from spreading. Last year, when the California legislature met to consider monitoring benzos, a doctor in attendance brandished the report as proof that the New York model didn’t work. The California lawmakers decided to leave benzos alone.

Further evidence of Upjohn’s agenda can be found in a February 1991 interoffice memo written by senior marketing analyst Robert Martin. The subject was a Gallup poll questioning 200 New York physicians about the effects of trip scrip on their prescribing habits. Citing the high number of objections to the regulation, Martin concluded, “The Gallup survey has effectively identified several of the key issues that must be addressed at the 28 February meeting in New York.”

Was the poll used to spin the symposium? Florence Steinberg said Upjohn commissioned the poll “to provide insight into public opinion. If the information was available [for the symposium], then it added more to the debate.” At Upjohn, though, “information” is just sugarcoating. Don’t swallow before you read the fine print.

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