Merger of Miscreants

Monday may be remembered as the day when American big business announced some 50,000 layoffs, but one large company seemed to take a step toward growth. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer unveiled plans that day to acquire its smaller competitor Wyeth in a stock and cash deal estimated at $68 billion. Pfizer crowed that the merger would create “the world’s premier biopharmaceutical company.”

While the deal may grow Pfizer’s revenues, it’s unclear who will benefit. The combined workforce of the two companies will be slashed by nearly 20,000 jobs. This will continue a policy of downsizing pursued by Pfizer CEO Jeffrey Kindler (photo) since he came to the giant drug firm from McDonald’s, of all places, in 2006.

Although Pfizer claims that the merged company will be better positioned to “respond more quickly and effectively to meet changing health care needs,” it is doubtful that patients will gain much from the creation of the mega-corporation. Pfizer has been feasting on the profits generated by Lipitor, but the company’s patent rights to the cholesterol drug expire in 2011 and there is nothing major in its pipeline to replace it. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page sees the Wyeth acquisition as a sign of the “decline of innovation” in the drug industry.

Rather than developing new breakthrough products, companies like Pfizer seem mostly preoccupied with their legal issues. Kindler’s background, after all, is in litigation rather than science or even finance. Apart from patent issues, he has had to contend with the company’s regulatory problems. In fact, while everyone was focused on the merger, Pfizer announced that it had agreed to pay $2.3 billion (a record amount) to settle federal charges in connection with its off-label marketing of the now-withdrawn painkiller Bextra. The revelation was buried in a long press release announcing the company’s fourth-quarter financial results.

Bextra is not Pfizer’s only controversy. In October, for example, the New York Times published a story alleging that the company had manipulated the publication of scientific research to bolster the use of its epilepsy treatment Neurtonin for other disorders while suppressing research that didn’t support those uses. In 2006 the company was accused of testing an unapproved drug on children in Nigeria.

Pfizer’s bride-to-be Wyeth (formerly known as American Home Products) also has a record that is far from unblemished. The summary of legal proceedings in the company’s last annual financial report goes on for 14 pages. Most of the lawsuits are product liability cases involving hormone therapy, childhood vaccines, the anti-depressant Effexor, the contraceptive Norplant and, most importantly, the combination diet drug known as fen-phen, which was withdrawn from the market more than a decade ago after reports that its use was linked to possibly fatal heart valve damage. The findings unleashed a wave of tens of thousands of lawsuits against the company, including a case in Texas in which a jury awarded a single plaintiff more than $1 billion in damages. The company set up a $3.75 billion fund as part of the attempted resolution of a national class action case. Another $1.3 billion was added to the fund in 2006. Many plaintiffs opted out of the class and negotiated individual settlements with the company.

Big mergers are often justified with the claim that the combination will enhance product innovation. The main synergy likely to emerge from the marriage of Pfizer and Wyeth will be in its litigation department.

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