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Big Pharma's Track Record
OR THE CASE FOR ONGOING SCEPTICISM REGARDING PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES’ CLAIMS ABOUT ANYTHING REALLY
Vaccine Hesitancy – Is it Misinformation or Are Anti-Vaxxers Just ‘Paranoid’?
I’ve recently been re-watching the excellent British drama, Paranoid (available on Netflix in Australia.) The storyline goes something like this: a single mother and small-town GP is murdered by a seemingly random knife attack at the local playground. At first, the police were convinced that a local man, well known for having mental health issues, had committed the murder. Unfortunately for that theory, he ends up suspiciously dead as well. I don’t want to spoil it for any potential viewers, but the whole show turns out to be an interesting comment on how far big pharma will go to protect its assets and profits. There is a particular scene in which a pharmaceutically enhanced and strung-out ‘Bobby’ loses his composure at a pill-filled plastic statue of Jesus in the lobby of a pharma company, demolishing it in a fit of rage. This moment is well worth your viewing time alone. One thing I couldn’t help reflecting on, though, was how much the world has changed since I first watched this series some years ago. Back then, it was just a good British drama with an interesting storyline. Today, however, it kind of reads like a documentary.
From the Opioid crisis to the recent explosive allegations of falsified data, and sloppy science in the phase III trials for Pfizer’s mRNA vaccines published in the British Medical Journal only this week, the following examples highlight just how problematic big pharma’s rap sheet really is.
The Opioid Crisis feat. Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma
As someone who works in mental health, I have always thought that pharmaceuticals were a two-edged sword. When it comes to psychological issues, the promise of pharmaceuticals — once considered amazingly effective at solving ‘depression’ by rebalancing the chemicals in the brain— are now seen as just one part of a more holistic approach to treatment. Such balanced approaches weren’t always the norm, though, as the Opioid crisis demonstrated.
According to the NIH website, back in the 1990s drug companies mislead the medical community regarding just how addictive pain relieving medications (such as fentanyl and oxycodone) really were. Thanks to aggressive marketing by the pharmaceutical companies, doctors started prescribing them liberally. This soon led to an epidemic of addiction in users, many of whom had never used addictive drugs before.* As recent as September 2021, the Attorney General’s office in Texas announced that a 290 million dollar settlement had been agreed to by four of the pharmaceutical companies and distributors involved in the opioid tragedy. Included in this posse is Johnson & Johnson.
Despite agreeing to the settlement, Johnson & Johnson claimed in a recent press release that this is ‘not an admission of guilt’. In-fact, none of the four companies who were involved in the settlement acknowledged culpability. They all deny responsibility for any “wrongdoing”. While 290 million may seem like a lot of money to pay out for doing nothing wrong, it does not really account for the pain and suffering that the victims of these drugs and their families have endured. According to the Attorney General, however, the state intends to continue to pursue legal action against these companies for their deceptive practices.
In related news, Purdue pharma owners —the Sackler family— agreed to pay $4.5 billion dollars to settle another lawsuit in 2020, but only in exchange for immunity against any further litigation. According to this BBC article, they plead guilty to falsely marketing the painkiller Oxycontin as safe and non-addictive, defrauding health authorities and even of “making illegal payments to doctors to encourage the over-prescription of opioids.” Yet they apparently showed little remorse and denied personal responsibility for the damage caused by their company’s actions. Purdue filed for bankruptcy in 2019, but the Sackler family remain very wealthy.
Baby Powder – J&J’s ongoing gritty little problem
In 2018, Reuters published an extensive investigative report into Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder’s long-standing problem with cancer causing asbestos and the thousands of litigations it has been involved in for decades. The report details Johnson and Johnson’s continuing efforts to fight litigation and its insistence that its most iconic brand is ‘safe’ and free from asbestos. The report claims that the company mislead the FDA and hid information regarding lab reports showing that some of its products had shown traces of asbestos, and that at least one report stated the levels were significantly high. Despite the ongoing litigation, and a recent verdict which awarded the 22 plaintiffs the extremely large sum of 4.69 billion dollars in damages, this is still not that much of a dent in Johnson & Johnson’s earnings, which amount to 76 billion dollars annually. Johnson & Johnson have a keen interest in protecting its signature brand which for decades has symbolised its image as a “caring company”.
Merck’s Jagged Little Pill – vioxx
In 1999 Merck’s new arthritis pill, branded Vioxx, was approved by the FDA. This little pill quickly became a best seller for Merck, grossing the pharmaceutical company billions of dollars in revenue. By 2004, Merck was forced to pull the drug from the market over safety concerns. By that time, millions of people around the world had been prescribed Vioxx. It is estimated that up to 160,000 people suffered heart attacks from the medication with approximately 30 – 40% of those dying as a result. In 2007, Merck agreed to a 4.85 billion payout to settle the thousands of settlements bought against the drug maker, after already spending 2 billion dollars in fighting individual lawsuits. Once again, the New Jersey basedcompany issued a statement in which it “emphasized that it is not admitting fault.”
Merck has won many of the individual damages cases, including one infamous Australian case. On appeal in an Australian court, a Mr Peterson had his $330,000 ruling overturned with the three sitting judges ruled in favour of the drug company, consequently leaving 1500 class action plaintiffs in the lurch. This case was significant for other reasons, in that it revealed the lengths that Merck and its employees underwent to prevent unfavourable opinions on its medications from coming out. Court documents revealed actions ranging from targeting individual doctors in order to “neutralise” or “discredit” them, to threatening to withdraw funding and paying “ghost” authors to put their name to academic publications actually written by Merck staff. Merck also paid a settlement amount of $830 million in 2016 to settle a securities class action lawsuit in favour of investors who claimed that Merck failed to inform them of the heart risks associated with Vioxx.
These are just three of the most easily accessed examples of the sorts of manoeuvres that pharmaceutical companies have made in their effort to make a profit. In a way, this is what we have come to expect from big business generally. But pharmaceutical companies are in the business of developing and producing medicines, which everyday people trust will help them. Instead, these companies have put profits above safety and the dignity of human life. There are many more examples, including every media network’s favourite sponsor, Pfizer, who paid out a total of 2.3 billion in criminal and civil penalties for practices such as paying health care providers to promote their medications and making false claims to government agencies such as Medicare and Medicaid. The recent pandemic has, if nothing else, been a great opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry to rebrand themselves as the saviours of humanity by providing ‘life-saving’ vaccines, as well as showcasing the amazing technological advances in biotechnology. Under normal circumstances, this technology may have been delayed by cumbersome safety trials taking years and years to get approved.
Is it that far-fetched to hold that because we are in an ‘unprecedented’ pandemic situation, these new vaccines have been given the green light to be rushed through an approval process which normally takes a decade or more? With the backing of the legacy media, governmental authoritarian mandates, and online social pressure, anyone who dares to question anything to do with the vaccines —no matter their prior standing or expertise in the area— is quickly and expediently ‘discredited and neutralised’. Deals have been done behind closed doors, and contracts to provide these vaccines are airtight and squarely in favour of the company. For anyone willing to do more than just skim the headlines, the narrative just doesn’t add up.
Given the track record of “big pharma’s” conduct when it comes to honesty, integrity and safety, I for one am struggling to understand the level of confidence displayed by media, governments and the health authorities in these novel vaccines, and the reckless abandonment of the usual standards of care, safety and lack of scrutiny of the claims made by these companies regarding their safety and efficacy. There is certainly something rotten in the state of democracy when we are to take pharmaceutical companies at their word. After all, they have nothing to lose by smudging the facts and everything to gain. If, as they say in criminology, the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, I shudder to think what the future may reveal.