Wiping the slate clean?
Given the well-known revolving door between pharma and medicines regulators like the FDA, are things as they appear? Or can we speculate that there is some kind of quid pro quo, where the settlement for agreeing fraud charges was conditional on GSK receiving an open door to some other markets? Like Monsanto which wrongly claims GM foods can alleviate world hunger, GSK has also pledged to offer cheap medicine for the world’s poor. But these megalithic businesses that continuously run low in the popularity stakes don’t tend to do much for no return. And they seek out positive PR opportunities in an attempt to drown out the inevitable negative ones that inevitably arise from a business based on making and selling inherently toxic products.
Our guess is that the huge fraud settlement is all about trying to wipe clean previous bad press that is continuing to smear the company's 'good name'. The charges were after all for its activities between 1997 and 2004. It of course doesn’t help having a drug designed to treat type 2 diabetes (Avandia) that is later found to give people heart attacks. In fact, concealing data that showed GSK knew about the Avandia risk is one of the reasons for the biggest settlement for healthcare fraud in history.
....and finding new pastures
Pay the fine (2012), accept the European Avandia ban (2010) along with the FDA’s black box warning for myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) (2007), and wipe the slate clean. Get on with business, with the air of a reformed character. That seems to be what it’s about. Over the coming months and years, we’ll see GSK aggressively expanding its involvement in new sectors of the consumer health market, including the sports nutrition sector, previously dominated by non-pharmaceutical, specialist dietary/food supplement manufacturers. This process was kicked off in a big way by GSK’s acquisition of Maxinutrition, Europe’s number 1 sports nutrition company by market share, back in 2010. GSK, like the other drug companies, wil be eyeing the botanical food supplement sector very carefully for opportunities. They are likely to become significant drivers of ever-tightening legislation on botanicals, the subject of our main feature this week (see top story below).
GSK, armed with Orlistat, Alli and an expanding portfolio of products, will also continue to increase its exploitation of the condition suffered by a rapidly expanding population of baby boomers; obesity. Well-recognised side effects of Orlistat and Alli include oily discharge from the rectum, needing the toilet urgently, flatulence, abdominal pain, headache and increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections. None of these are particularly pleasant for either the patient or those around them, but they are nonetheless less spectacular than Avandia’s heart attacks. Accordingly, they are less likely to generate mega damages claims – and they are at least officially listed on patient safety information. So, plug on (or should we say ‘in’), seems to be the motto.
Why do we put up with it?
Coming full circle, the most fascinating aspect of all the dramas surrounding GSK, is that the company will probably survive the fraud settlement with barely a flutter in its heart beat or a dip in its revenues. It is after all the fourth largest corporation on the planet.
In almost every other walk of life, a fraud charge puts a lid on your future success. Look what they’ve done to Dr Andrew Wakefield on very flimsy evidence. Or Barclays UK CEO Bob Diamond for that matter. But, ironically, the likes of GSK and Monsanto, manage to get away with it. These companies’ tentacles are so deeply integrated into the fabric of our society, and so many people are even unaware of what branded products they make or sell. They thus appear to be untouchable. And because of their contribution to their respective countries’ GDPs, they will always remain the friends of governments, even if they do get their wrists slapped from time to time.
Will you use products made by a fraudster?
So here’s this week’s homework: If you are upset about GSK being done for fraud (and let’s remind ourselves that this is the biggest fraud charge in history), think about excluding GSK's products from your life. Prescription drugs and vaccines are obviously the major sectors of GSK’s business, but its consumer health products stretch to products as diverse as Aquafresh and Macleans toothpastes, to Horlicks, Ribena and Lucozade drinks, through to Maxinutrition sports supplements. You can search the company’s product portfolio via this link on the GSK website. If you don’t like what GSK does, make it your business to boycott GSK’s products. There’s plenty of other products out there, including a big variety of natural ones, that are not made by companies that have pleaded guilty to US$3 billion worth of criminal and civil misdemeanour charges.
In health, naturally
Rob Verkerk PhD
Executive and scientific director