Editorial: Prozac and Privacy

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We're hearing several cries of "I'm not responsible" over the recent Prozac mailing scandal, and it will be some time before the Florida Attorney General's office finishes its investigation. At issue: A South Florida woman is suing because she was mailed a free sample of the prescription drug Prozac Weekly even though she doesn't take the medication, nor did she ask her doctor to switch her from what she currently uses. Officials have yet to determine how many mailings went out, though it was reported that there were at least six. The state wants to determine whether the mailings were legal.

The lawsuit charges that Walgreens, which filled the prescription, allowed access to patient prescription records, providing Prozac maker Eli Lilly with a list of antidepressant users. The letter was addressed only to "Dear Patient" and ends with, "Congratulations on being one step to full recovery." It was signed by three doctors and one physician's assistant with the Holy Cross Medical Group. Also included were a brochure and coupon for more samples.

Eli Lilly apologized for its role, saying it "is inappropriate and inconsistent with corporate policy" and suspended a handful of employees in Florida with ties to the mailing as it looks into the matter. Walgreens says it had "legitimate prescriptions issued by doctors and did not provide any patient information to the doctors or to Eli Lilly." The Holy Cross Medical Hospital, which owns the practice involved, and the doctors who signed the letter are keeping mum. Most disturbing, however, is that officials don't think this type of aggressive marketing tactic is an isolated case. Last week, Eckerd's Corp. settled with the state -- though without admitting any wrongdoing -- over violating consumer privacy and sending marketing information.

Privacy advocates are up in arms -- and rightly so -- over this latest breach in trust. The medical profession has enough problems. Prescription drugs should not be treated like they are detergent samples. Though Eli Lilly denies that the incident was a company-sponsored effort, it's suspicious that several employees there have been suspended. Consumer groups say the issue clearly illustrates the dangers of paying pharmacies to market drugs directly to patients. Whatever the case, it would be very sad if doctors and pharmacists are getting kickbacks to push one drug over another.

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