Record-breaking multibillion-dollar settlements against big drug companies have become routine in the U.S. In recent years, pharmaceutical companies seem to have been playing a game of one-upmanship, each surpassing yet a new milestone of wrongdoing — fraudulently marketing their drugs or making misleading claims about their safety — and the threat of massive payouts appears to have offered little deterrent.
Even the largest of settlements rarely dent the profits associated with the drugs involved: for example, the largest fine ever imposed on a drug company — July’s $3 billion judgment against GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in part for illegally marketing the antidepressants Paxil and Wellbutrin and withholding data on the health risks of the diabetes medication Avandia — accounted for just 11% of associated revenue. Many other cases resulted in relatively smaller losses even when the fines were imposed as criminal penalties, as in the GSK case, and not just for civil law violations. Contrast such outcomes with those in most individual cases of fraud, in which all profits are typically confiscated as ill-gotten gains and the fraudster goes to prison.
A recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine calls for change: levy large enough fines against drug companies for illegal behavior, so that the payouts can’t be dismissed as merely “the cost of doing business”; offer more protections for whistleblowers; and perhaps most importantly, file criminal charges against drug company executives for misconduct that could put them in prison.
While the pharmaceutical industry is essential to medicine and has produced crucial drugs that have saved countless lives, eight of the 10 biggest international drug companies have recently agreed to pay millions to billions of dollars to settle charges of wrongdoing, and are currently operating under so-called corporate integrity agreements — essentially, promises not to commit the same crimes again. Some have already violated earlier agreements multiple times, however, to the tune of hundreds of millions dollars.
Following are the 10 biggest pharma settlements since 2007, with details on companies’ illegal acts and the drugs involved, based on both the New England Journal editorial and other sources.
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