Lone Wolf Takes on the Pharma Pack

By Jake Whitney

Early in Dr. Peter Rost's new book, The Whistleblower: Confessions of a Healthcare Hitman, Rost compares corporate culture to running with a wolf pack. "Everyone helps out and is friendly as long as it benefits the group," he writes, "but each wolf cares only about himself and will do anything to survive."

Rost is talking about the bad guys -- the greedy corporate executives and gutless, backstabbing coworkers who either take part in or turn a blind eye to corporate malfeasance. Rost, as the title indicates, is the good guy, and The Whistleblower recounts his career exposing corporate wrongdoing. But the question that lingers over his 200-page David vs. Goliath story is this: Is Rost, too, a wolf, attracted to whistleblowing by reasons more self-serving than altruistic?

Rost's career as a whistleblower began at the pharmaceutical giant Wyeth, where, as a top executive, he sued the company after blowing the whistle on tax fraud. His book skips this part (for legal reasons) and picks up a few years later, in the summer of 2002, when Rost was a successful vice president at Pharmacia -- a mid-sized, New Jersey-based drug firm. In July of that year, Pfizer, the biggest pharmaceutical company in the world, announced it would acquire Pharmacia, and Rost's book takes us through the acquisition up until his firing, on Dec. 1, 2005.

According to Rost, his termination from Pfizer was the final blow in a prolonged period of retaliation for his whistleblowing, which included shedding light on a string of illegal and/or unethical business practices: illegal marketing of Genotropin, a human growth hormone; wholesaler stuffing (to inflate sales numbers); and sexual liaisons among Pfizer management. But it was Rost's position on drug importation that made him famous.

While still a vice president at Pfizer, Rost infuriated his bosses by appearing before Congress and on 60 Minutes advocating the importation of drugs from Canada as a way to reduce pharmaceutical costs for Americans. This was a direct contradiction of the industry's (and the Bush administration's) line, which declared importation to be unsafe. But Rost, a native Swede, shot holes in the industry's argument by pointing out that drug importation had been taking place safely in Europe for 20 years.

All of this is recounted in fascinating detail in The Whistleblower, much of which reads more like a detective novel than a memoir. This is due in no small part to the fact that, as Rost's responsibilities at Pfizer were slowly removed, he was left with little to do but detective work. His account of what he discovered is alternately hilarious and terrifying.

In the book, Rost recounts how, following his appearance on 60 Minutes, Pfizer retaliates by disabling his corporate email, killing his cell phone and dropping his annual bonus. In response, Rost pens emails to Pfizer's general counsel and IT department demanding an explanation -- and he attaches an electronic tracer to the messages. The emails bounce around the company and then on to three "world-class law firms" and a huge communications company. Within a few days his emails are opened over 100 times, and Rost realizes he may be "outgunned" in his battle with Goliath.

Perhaps Rost's scariest discovery comes after pushing Pfizer management to address Pharmacia's illegal marketing of Genotropin. He uncovers a mysterious document stuck in his personnel file which turns out to be authored by a private investigator, hired by Pfizer, reporting on whether Rost ever purchased a weapon and whether he might be a danger to himself or others. It is around this time, Rost says, "I vowed I would expose the pharmaceutical industry and their methods."

Rost's critics say his whistleblowing has been more about seeking fame and fortune (the latter in the form of book deals and lawsuit settlements) than helping people. In fact, Rost does have an uncanny habit of making headlines by exposing deviousness wherever he goes -- most recently at HuffingtonPost.com, where he was "fired" after unmasking a frequent critic as the Post's very own technology manager.

But criticizing Rost's motives is off base, for two reasons. For one, every time Rost has spoken out, he's lost more than he's gained. By taking on Pfizer and publicly advocating importation, he insured he would never work in the industry again; at Wyeth, he lost what he said was the best job of his life. "I've never had more fun than when I was the managing director of the Nordic region," he said in a recent interview. "Nothing I've done since compares with that."

Second, Rost's book is about more than just himself. Much of the latter half, in fact, has nothing to do with Rost's battle with Pfizer, but is rather a litany of recent drug company corruption, and Rost argues convincingly that the FDA and America's major medical journals have been co-opted by the industry. When he moves on to examine the American economy at large, where he lays out some eye-opening statistics comparing skyrocketing CEO salaries with the static ones of American workers, we realize Rost has reached his destination.

Ultimately, The Whistleblower is an impassioned jeremiad against corporate greed, with Rost our inside man. The book's overriding theme is that the American political system is in danger of degenerating into a plutocracy (or "kleptocracy," as he dubs it) -- if it hasn't already. "The American democracy has been stolen by our new class of robber barons -- the CEOs of our largest corporations," he writes.

These assertions aren't new, but when spoken by a former vice president at the world's largest drug company, they take on added weight. Rost, after all, was reeling in almost a million dollars a year with Pfizer, and conceivably one day could've joined this ruling class. Instead, he chose to break away from the pack, and become a lone wolf. And we're all the better for it.

Jake Whitney is a freelance writer from New York.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2006

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