Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pharmaceutical Criminals

Drug companies claim to work for the betterment of our health. Yet behind the scenes is a corrupt industry driven by greed. The use of drugs in health care is a $100 billion a year scam. Drug companies suppress adverse information and paint a false picture of prescription drug benefits, even when the companies know that the drugs needlessly kill or injure. That might sound a bit harsh, but anyone scanning the legal literature and even the medical journals must wonder how the industry can continue with such deception.

Drug companies engage in censorship, bribery, corruption, fraud, suppression of negative studies and all varieties of unscrupulous tactics to sell products. In almost every other industry, such graft would lead to being driven out of business. Drug companies commit fraud The same drug companies that produce statins commit fraud, get caught, then settle and go about business as usual.

In September 2009, Pfizer, the world’s largest drug maker (and maker of Lipitor®, the world’s best-selling statin), agreed to a $1.3 billion criminal fine and total of $2.3 billion settlement, the largest in U.S. history. Pfizer agreed to a felony plea by a subsidiary to close an investigation into what government lawyers described as fraudulent marketing of drugs. The settlement was the fourth with Pfizer or a subsidiary since 2002, including earlier legal action on the marketing of Lipitor® (atorvastatin). Other drugs produced by Pfizer include Viagra® and Celebrex®. A court jury in Philadelphia found Pfizer guilty of deliberately ignoring evidence that Prempro®, their hormone replacement therapy (HRT), increased women’s risk of breast cancer. The company knew as far back as the 1970s that the drug had the potential to cause breast cancer.

Pfizer is not alone in having been caught committing unscrupulous business practices. Other large legal settlements for deceptive practices include GlaxoSmithKline, Apothecon and its parent the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company. Perhaps most egregious (so far) has been Merck & Company, for deliberately concealing information on increased risks of heart attack and stroke from its painkiller Vioxx®. The company certainly knew of the grave risks beforehand but Vioxx® was a very profitable drug. From 1999 to 2004, Vioxx® was widely prescribed as a painkiller for arthritis and migraines. The drug led to some 43,000 premature deaths and over 120,000 injuries in the U.S. Vioxx®, a COX-2 arthritis drug, doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke—a bit of a conundrum when one considers that Merck & Company also sells drugs that are supposed to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Merck paid $4.85 billion dollars in the U.S. to settle 26,600 claims representing 47,000 plaintiffs, plus 265 possible class action cases, yet has made no admission of guilt.

In 2009, more than 1,000 Australians were suing Merck. GlaxoSmithKline was also caught covering up test results that link the antidepressant Paxil® with increased suicidal tendencies in teens. GlaxoSmithKline concealed evidence from clinical trials that suggested Paxil® was ineffective and even unsafe for juvenile use. The company paid $2.5 million in restitution. The same drug company (using a somewhat different name, SmithKline Beecham) dealt with and silenced a scientist who criticised its Avandia® diabetes drug. The executive involved has gone on to become the head of health at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, while the harassed academic scientist has since been vindicated by subsequent evidence that the drug does in fact increase heart attack risk.

The pharmaceutical company Apothecon and its parent, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, have paid out millions of dollars as a result of their misconduct including illegal gifts to doctors and health-care providers to encourage them to promote and prescribe the company’s drugs. In 2009, Biovail Pharmaceuticals pleaded guilty to conspiracy and kickback charges for the same type of offence and has been sentenced to pay a criminal fine of more than $22 million as well as a $2.4 million civil penalty. Bristol-Myers Squibb Company offered to pay $499 million to settle federal investigations into whether the company played a role in a pricing scheme that led insurers and government agencies to overpay for drugs. The company reduced its profit forecast to reflect the charges.

Purdue Pharma continued to vigorously market the painkiller Oxycontin® even after Purdue knew that Oxycontin® was highly (and lethally) addictive. After some shrewd plea-bargaining and a favourable judgement, Purdue was allowed to continue trading without any executive felony charges, but with a fine-like payment of $600 million, representing 90% of profits on Oxycontin® sales between 1996 and 2001.

A Bayer subsidiary called Cutter Biological knowingly sold AIDS-contaminated clotting factors for treating haemophiliacs. Once caught, Bayer and other companies continued to sell to the East and to South America for at least a year. Across the world it is likely that thousands were infected and died. In the U.S., thousands of patients have developed AIDS and the companies have paid out $600 million in settlements. But they get away with it.

These cases are not small exceptions but seem to be the rule for most major pharmaceutical companies. We are talking about some of the biggest companies in the world literally getting away with murder—not once, but many times. The companies that we are supposed to trust with our lives have been or are now involved in tens of thousands of lawsuits in connection with hundreds of billions of dollars. The reasons they get away with it come down to money and vested interests.

Things can be very different for small, non-pharmaceutical companies in the health field. For example, in 2003, Pan Pharmaceuticals, the largest packager of alternative medicines, supplements and herbs in Australia and one of the largest in the world, was suspended by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the Australian federal government’s regulatory body. The TGA suspended Pan Pharmaceuticals’ licence and ordered the immediate recall of 219 of its products. This was a result of a hundred people reporting adverse effects from taking the Pan Pharmaceuticals Travacalm; 19 of those people were hospitalised. In November 2005, Pan Pharmaceuticals was fined $3 million. However, the trouble was with only one product. If this rule were to apply to the pharmaceutical drug companies, who have knowingly killed thousands of people, none of the pharmaceutical drug companies would be operational today. There appear be two standards: one for the drug companies and one for all the rest.

To finish up the Pan story, in August 2008 the former head of Pan Pharmaceuticals, Jim Selim, won $50 million in damages and an extra $5 million for legal costs in his case against the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Sadly, this was after almost 400 people working for the alternative medicine packager had lost their jobs. If you want more on this visit Big Pharma exec turned Whistleblower, Dr Paul Thorsen.


  1. Have you seen the EU ban on herbal medicine that came into effect in May? I think safety is important, herbal or pharmaceutical, so I think regulations are necessary in this area however it needs to be a level playing field - one person is affected by a herbal so they ban the lot and ask for proof for safety Vs thousands harmed by pharmaceuticals and it needs to be in epidemic proportions before they banned it, even then they are only asked to prove it unsafe? Where is the logic in that???