GlaxoSmithKline’s bribes are evidence that Big Pharma isn’t working
Philip Ball The inadequacies of relying solely on market forces for our drugs are clearer than ever. This scandal should prompt a rethink
Wednesday 4 July 2012 14.45 BST Last modified on Wednesday 21 May 2014 05.11 BST
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the latest GlaxoSmithKline drug scandal is that malpractice among our overlords still has the ability to shock at all. Yet despite popular cynicism about doctors being in the pockets of the drug companies, there remains a sense that the people responsible for our healthcare are more principled and less corruptible than expenses-fiddling politicians, predatory bankers, amoral media magnates and venal police.
If this were a junk food company lying about its noxious products, or a tobacco company pushing ciggies on schoolkids, we’d be outraged but hardly surprised. When a major pharmaceutical company is found to have been up to comparable misdemeanours – bad enough to warrant an astonishing $3bn fine – it seems more of a betrayal of trust.
This is absurd, of course, but it shows how the healthcare industry benefits from its proximity to the Hippocratic oath. “Do more, feel better, live longer” GSK purrs. How can we doubt a company that announces as its priorities as “improving the health and wellbeing of people around the world” and “being open and honest in everything we do”?
Now GSK admits that, in effect, it risked damaging the health of people around the world, and was secretive and fraudulent in some of what it did. Among other things, it promoted antidepressant drug Paxil, approved only for adults, to people under 18. It marketed other drugs for non-approved uses; it suppressed scientific studies that didn’t suit (for example over the heart attack risks of its diabetes drug Avandia), and over-hyped others that did. It also hosted outings for doctors in exotic locations and showered them with perks, knowing that this would boost prescriptions of its drugs.