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Pharmaceutical Scandal or not?,

The Distinction Elaborated


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For a list of other drug corporation scandals see this page

In 1995 the Shell corporation gained approval from the UK government to carry out its plan to dispose of the out of commission Brent Spar offshore oil container by sinking it in a remote region of the ocean. Shell determined this was the best option, as opposed to onshore dismantling, because it would be cheaper, less dangerous for the workforce, and have a minimal impact on the environment and marine life. The same year Greenpeace carried out extensive protests in response to Shell's disposal plan, including occupying the Brent Spar, after which they claimed to have evidence that the Brent Spar still contained more than 5000 tons of oil, and significant quantities of other waste, including radioactive material. The combination of the Greenpeace protests, media coverage, new international laws and severe public outcry forced Shell to abandon its plans and opt for the more expensive, more dangerous, but presumably more environmentally friendly option of onshore dismantling. But, Greenpeace later admitted that the Brent Spar did not contain nearly the amount of contaminants they claimed it did, and it is now accepted by many that Shell's initial plan to sink the rig was in fact not as damaging as Greenpeace would have the public believe. In this situation Shell acted ethically, telling the truth about the contents of the Brent Spar and the expected results of their plan, but did not have the credibility in the public's eyes that Greenpeace did. As a result, Shell was involved in a scandal in which they did little, if anything, wrong, and did not affect the health of anyone.

  • This scandal belongs in the not-unethical/non-human health category above.

Between 1996 and 1999 Enron reported to its shareholders that it had made $2.3 billion in profits, when in actuality it was steadily losing money. To achieve this, a series of complex tax schemes were employed which shifted debt into a series of almost nonexistent companies set up by Enron executives. As a result, Enron appeared to be making profits, when in fact they were not. Some argued that Enron deliberately and aggressively engaged in transactions that had no business purpose other than to put forward the appearance that it was a profitable company worth investing in. Enron deliberately deceived its shareholders in order to inflate short-term earnings and thereby enrich senior managers. The result was serious financial harm to thousands of investors. It can easily be argued that Enron’s actions were unethical, but once again, these scandals did not involve the health of consumers in any way, only the financial well being of the company and its shareholders. It is presented as an example of an entirely financial, non-pharmaceutical scandal.

  • This scandal belongs in the unethical/non-human health category above.

In late 2001, ImClone’s drug Erbitux failed to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and as a result the company's stock price dropped severely. Later, the Security and Exchange Commission revealed that several executives and board members sold their stock before the announcement of the decision. Samuel Waksal, founder and CEO of ImClone, was arrested in 2002 on insider trading charges for informing his friends and family to sell their stock, and attempting to sell his own. Like the Enron scandal, this scandal involved unethical financial actions by members of the corporation, but didn’t directly jeopardize the health of consumers. But, unlike the Enron scandal, the ImClone scandal did involve a bio-pharmaceutical corporation. Some might label ImClone’s act as a “corporate drug scandal,” when in fact it is not substantially different than any financial scandal which a non-pharmaceutical corporation could be involved with, such as the Enron scandal.

  • This scandal belongs in the unethical/non-human health category above.

Purdue's pain relief drug Oxycontin has been at the center of a great deal of attention in the last few years. Despite its status as a prescription drug, this opiate derivative narcotic went from limited use in cancer wards, to being prescribed by family doctors, until finally it became a sought after street drug due to its highly addictive qualities. Initially designed as a painkiller for the most debilitating cases of suffering, Oxycontin ended up being stolen and sold on the street to addicts with no medical need for it. Despite this, it is very unclear who is to blame for this epidemic of prescription drug abuse, because no one in particular did anything obviously unethical. Doctors may have prescribed OxyContin unnecessarily, but many only did so because they most likely weren't fully aware of the properties and uses of the drug. Also, Purdue did not obscure or manipulate any information about the drug, and, although they didn't directly confront the problem themselves, they also didn't intentionally create it. In other words, they did nothing worse than any other drug company which would manufacture and market a prescription drug, but nonetheless their product got out of hand, affecting the health of many citizens.

  • This scandal belongs in the not-unethical/human health category above.

A civil lawsuit, filed in New York, claimed that GSK committed fraud when it avoided informing physicians that studies of its highly profitable drug Paxil, also known as Seroxat, had shown that the drug was not only ineffective in adolescents, but might also contribute to some cases of suicide. Assuming these accusations are true, GSK acted in a clearly unethical fashion, as it deceived health care professionals and the public about the effectiveness and safety of its drug, presumably in order to maintain strong sales. This unethical behaviour had the potential of seriously impacting human health, as consumers of the drug were sometimes at higher risk of suicide than if they hadn’t taken the drug at all.

  • This scandal belongs in the unethical/human health category above.


A study by the Food and Drug Administration reported that over four years, from 1999 to 2003, more than 27,000 heart attacks and sudden cardiac arrests may have occurred due to Merck & Co.'s arthritis drug Vioxx. Merck abruptly pulled its product from the market upon the release of the study. But, some have argued that Merck & Co. knew of the potential for health risks associated with Vioxx as early as five years before the recall, and never followed up on them, opting instead to market the drug without further research. If this is the case, then Merck & Co. acted in a clearly unethical fashion by not informing the public of the health risks, and affected the health of the public by releasing a product which was potentially dangerous.

  • This scandal belongs in the unethical/human health category above.

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