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HomeNewsDrug giants pay billions in fines but the profits keep soaring

Drug giants pay billions in fines but the profits keep soaring


BIG Pharma has paid more than £66billion in fines since 2010, with the worst years between 2020 to 2023, the pandemic years, a report says. Global medicine manufacturers incurred the penalties whilst boasting record-breaking revenues. The top 15 companies’ income surpassed £577billion.

The drug giants, most of whom are household names, were penalised for infractions including violating drug and medical device safety rules, and for the unapproved promotion of medical products which breach the US False Claims Act.

Johnson & Johnson, one of the world’s most trusted brands famous for its baby products, was the worst offender, clocking up 45 violation records leading to £20.2billion in penalties. Some £14.84billion of that has been incurred in the last five years with £7.33billion paid in compensation for baby powder and talc which could cause cancer.

In the 70s, Johnson & Johnson knew the product was contaminated with asbestos, which went on to cause ovarian cancer in around 40,000 victims. The company allegedly failed to inform the Food and Drink Drug Administration (FDA) that at least three tests by three different labs found asbestos in the talc.

Johnson & Johnson’s opioids helped to fuel an addiction epidemic in the US which has claimed around 400,000 lives. So far the company has paid compensation of £16.49million to two Ohio counties for the violation. It also saw huge fines for the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal, which could cause men to grow breasts, the blood thinner Xarelto, which increased risk of internal bleeding, and pelvic mesh, which supports women’s prolapsed pelvic organs but allegedly caused many cases of bleeding, pain and infections.

In 2009, Pfizer incurred the biggest drug fine in US history and made a settlement of £1.89billion for mispromoting medicines and for paying kickbacks to compliant doctors. It admitted misbranding the painkiller Bextra, withdrawn from the market in 2004, by promoting the drug for uses not approved by medical regulators.

Pfizer recently admitted in a press release that its mRNA Covid-19 vaccination Comirnaty showed increased risks of developing myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the lining outside the heart), particularly within the first week following vaccination. It said the risks are highest in males aged 12 to 17. Despite this, and warnings about anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction, the FDA has approved it for use. To date, it has been granted only emergency use authorisation.

Also on the list is AstraZeneca, whose Covid-19 vaccine ChAdOx1-S has been quietly dropped from NHS schedules. It caused devastating side-effects including potentially fatal blood clots known as vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia (VITT). This earned it the nickname ‘clotshot’.

A lawsuit is pending against AstraZeneca. There are 79 claimants; 19 are bereaved and 54 suffered long-term damage after they survived blood clots they claim were caused by the vaccine.

Aside from the Covid vaccine case, and compensation which could run into billions if found guilty, the company has already clocked up £1.12billion in fines and ranks 14th on the list of worst offenders.

AstraZeneca is among many who recommended drugs for uses other than those for which they were approved. It promoted its drug Seroquel, used to treat psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar in the short term. The company paid ‘kickbacks’ to doctors to use the drug for Alzheimer’s, anger management, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dementia, depression, mood disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and insomnia, for which it was never tested. The elderly, children, veterans and prison inmates were treated as ‘guinea pigs’, according to the acting US attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania where the case was brought.

Another significant settlement was made by Purdue Pharma, ordered to pay £6.84billion compensation for its role in the opioid crisis. Several programmes, including Disney’s drama Dopesick, and the Netflix documentary The Pharmacist and drama Painkiller, have been made about the scandal which saw millions become addicted to the opioid oxycontin. Purdue blamed those who were prescribed oxycontin for drug abuse.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) the independent think tank based in New York, the opioid epidemic is causing significant economic damage, costing nearly £1.23trillion in 2020. This equals seven per cent of US gross domestic product, an increase of a third since the last measurement in 2017.

Other drug companies involved are the Israeli-based Teva Pharmaceuticals (£7billion fines) which sells medicines for heart disease, pain relief, obesity, cancer, infectious diseases, immunodeficiency viruses and coughs and colds; American AbbVie (£5.85billion) the world’s sixth-largest pharmaceutical company  whose main product is Humira, used to treat autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s, as well as GlaxoSmithKline (£4.61billion), Pfizer (£2.63billion) and Merck (£1.12billion), manufacturer of the HPV vaccine Gardasil blamed for ovarian failure amongst other injuries.

The 15 most lucrative pharmaceutical companies have seen their profits almost double since 2010. They have increased from £63.5billion to £120.4billion and, in 2022, Pfizer became the first drug manufacturer to cross the $100billion (£82.4billion) barrier for revenue.

The study was compiled by ConsumerShield, a company which defends consumer rights. It reports an exact figure of £68.27billion in penalties for more than 500 instances of recorded violations.

‘The juxtaposition of soaring revenues and escalating penalties is alarming,’ remarks Jane Doe, senior analyst at ConsumerShield. ‘But what’s even more disturbing is the obvious disparity between companies’ spending on research and development (R&D), and their enormous marketing budgets.’

The industry’s marketing budgets are excessive, with companies such as AbbVie, Teva, Pfizer and GSK allocating more than £1.64billion each. On average, these companies dedicate 25 per cent to 30 per cent of their R&D budget to marketing efforts.

While several top pharmaceutical companies have augmented their R&D budgets since 2018, those of AbbVie and Teva have seen a decline. ‘A reduction in R&D investments, especially for companies with prior trouble, is undoubtedly a disturbing trend,’ warns Michael Brown, director of research at ConsumerShield.

‘The overemphasis on marketing at the expense of crucial R&D raises serious questions regarding the industry’s commitment to consumer safety and product innovation,’ says Mary Johnson, ConsumerShield’s chief advocacy officer. ‘Reallocating some of these marketing funds to R&D could potentially minimise the necessity for settlements and diminish patient suffering.’

ConsumerShield experts express profound concern over the apparent lack of development and research, juxtaposed with aggressive marketing initiatives. This hints at a severe lack of accountability and empathy for the victims. The companies should come under continued pressure to increase victim compensation and adhere to compliance.

‘We will persist in our advocacy for higher industry standards, urging pharmaceutical companies to prioritise consumer safety, enhance transparency, and allocate more resources to R&D, eventually leading to a reduction in penalties and increased trust,’ says Ms Johnson.

In most cases, the pharmaceutical companies continue to deny any wrongdoing.

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Sally Beck
Sally Beck
Sally Beck is a freelance journalist with 30 years of experience in writing for national newspapers and magazines. She has reported on vaccines since the controversy began with the MMR in 1998.

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