If you think Barclays is bad, take a close look at GSK

This week, the US Justice Department fined a well-known multinational $3bn (£2bn) for serial corporate malpractice. And –in the manner of a suspended criminal sentence – imposed on company managers up to its chief executive stringent measures for slashing their pay and bonuses should further illegal activity come to light.

Another bank getting the Barclays treatment? No. This is one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline, getting its comeuppance for the inappropriate marketing of a slew of prescription drugs.

The only reason we haven’t heard more is because Barclays’ former chief Bob Diamond is hogging the limelight, for which Glaxo CEO Sir Andrew Witty must be profoundly grateful. All Diamond and his colleagues did was to manipulate the money markets. What GSK has done, by contrast, is gamble with human lives – including children’s lives – in the hope of making a fast buck for its shareholders and management team.

It’s a grubby tale, stretching back over a decade, which involves bribery, treating, corporate bullying and wilful suppression of the truth. And provides an interesting definition of what passed for trade marketing in Big Pharma.

Glaxo admitted corporate misconduct over the mis-selling of three drugs, the anti-depressants Paxil (known over here as Seroxat) and Wellbutrin, plus the asthma drug Advair.

Most egregious, perhaps, was the “repositioning” of Paxil – once GSK’s best-selling drug – as safe for adolescents, when clinical trials had failed to establish any such premise. No expense was spared in covering up this inconvenient truth.

“Luxurious conferences were organised in exotic climes where paid-for scientific speakers hyped up the conclusions of dubious academic papers,” The Independent tells us.”GSK held 8 ‘Paxil forum’ events in Puerto Rico, Hawaii and California, where hundreds of doctors were treated to snorkelling, horse-riding, sailing, deep-sea fishing, balloon rides and spa treatments, and given an ‘honorarium’ of $750 in cash. The company knew it was worth paying for these kinds of boondoggles; it monitored the doctors who attended and found they significantly increased prescriptions of Paxil in the months after the event.” Note and appreciate the scientific attention to the analysis of marketing data.

And there is more. GSK published an article in a medical journal that mis-stated the drug was safe for use by children, despite being asked several times by the journal’s publisher to change the wording. (Why was the publisher not more insistent? Probably because it feared going out of business. It’s a small world, Big Pharma. Copies of the offending article were then handed to sales reps, to help badger GPs into seeing GSK’s point of view.

In the case of Wellbutrin, GSK paid a well-known medical media star of the time, Dr Drew Pinsky, who hosted a then-popular radio show, nearly $300,000 to say nice things about it – like it could give you 60 orgasms in one night. Funnily enough, the good Doc failed to disclose to his audience, or anyone else for that matter, that he was taking the GSK shilling.

Woe betide you if you showed any scruples, however: when a GSK-funded doctor refused to suppress his own misgivings about the safety of the drug, GSK removed his funding.

What emerges about the marketing of the asthma drug Advair is its crassness. It was launched to sales reps in Las Vegas using images of slot machines – to emphasise the money they could make from bonuses. At the event, Jean-Pierre Garnier (pictured), the CEO on whose watch all these shenanigans went on, told them: “What is the number one reason why you should love to be a GSK rep? Advair’s bonus plan. Yeah!”

It’s reassuring to know our life is in their hands, isn’t it? Makes Barclays Bob look a bit of a saint by comparison.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK's leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.