Global corporations piously claim to adhere to the laws of the countries in which they do business, knowing full well that those laws in many places are weak or are not rigorously enforced.
It’s thus amusing to see British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline squirm in the face of corruption charges unexpectedly brought by the Chinese government. GSK purports to be shocked by allegations that its Chinese executives used funds laundered through travel agencies to bribe doctors, hospitals and public officials to purchase more of its products. The company insists that it has zero tolerance for such behavior and that a recent internal investigation had found no evidence of corruption in its Chinese operations.
These protestations are as unconvincing as the Chinese government’s claims that it is simply enforcing the law—as opposed to giving its emerging pharmaceutical industry a leg up. GSK’s alleged transgressions are little different from the practices that it and the rest of Big Pharma employ around the world.
Take the United States. In recent years, GSK has become known as the company that pays massive amounts to resolve wide-ranging allegations brought by regulators and prosecutors.
Some of those charges involved payments very much like the ones it is being accused of making in China. GSK was charged with giving kickbacks to doctors and other health professionals to prescribe drugs such as the anti-depressants Paxil and Wellbutrin for unapproved (and possibly dangerous) purposes. Payments also went to figures such as radio personality Drew Pinsky, who was given $275,000 by the company to promote Wellbutrin on his program.
The kickback allegations were among the charges covered by a $3 billion settlement GSK reached with the U.S. Justice Department in 2012. Also included in the deal were accusations that GSK withheld crucial safety data on its diabetes medication Avandia from the Food & Drug Administration and that it defrauded government healthcare programs in its pricing practices.
These safety and pricing matters were the culmination of years of controversy surrounding GSK and its predecessor companies. The safety issues dated back at least to the 1950s, when Smith, Kline & French was among the firms linked to Thalidomide and its horrible legacy of birth defects.
Until it was sold off in the late 1980s, Glaxo’s infant formula business, like that of Nestle, was accused of undermining public health in the third world by marketing the powder to women who were so poor that they tended to dilute the formula to the point that it lost its nutritional potency.
In the 1980s, SmithKline Beckman was the target of a rare criminal case brought under U.S. drug laws for failing to warn regulators and the public about the potentially lethal side effects of its blood pressure medication Selacryn.
Later years saw frequent charges that GSK suppressed evidence about the dangers of Paxil, especially in children. There were also many cases involving pricing abuses, including one in which GSK paid $150 million to resolve allegations of violating the federal False Claims Act in its dealings with Medicare and Medicaid.
Unlike many corporate settlements, GSK’s $3 billion deal with the feds required it to plead guilty to several criminal counts. It also had to sign a Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services.
In other words, the company is in effect on parole and subject to heightened scrutiny. The Chinese accusations seem to point to a big, fat violation of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. That would jeopardize GSK’s settlement and subject it to new penalties and sanctions.
Foreign corporations have long taken advantage of China’s lax regulatory system. Now that the People’s Republic is (selectively) cracking down, a company such as GSK deserves no sympathy.