What sort of company, then, is GSK? I ask because they seem to be trying very hard to convince us that Ben Goldacre actually gave Big Pharma an easy ride. I can’t help feeling that GlaxoSmithKline are wanting to see how close they can get to the boundaries of downright evil before we begin to really care. The head of GSK China, Mark Reilly, has just pleaded guilty to charges of bribery and given a three-year prison sentence. GSK has ensured that he gets deported so that he can serve the sentence here, because, you know, you can screw the Chinese in their own country but you don’t want to suffer their justice.
What’s he done? According to the Guardian, “The bribery case involved allegations that GSK sales executives paid up to 3bn yuan to doctors to encourage them to use its drugs… GSK was alleged to have used a network of more than 700 middlemen and travel agencies to bribe doctors and lawyers with cash and even sexual favours.” GSK is now saddled with a fine of comparable magnitude – close to £300m, approaching the GDP of a small nation.
In other words, it’s the old stuff – this is much the same as what GSK was fined $3 bn for in the US back in 2012. After I wrote about that case, I was fairly stunned at the response of the former GSK CEO Richard Sykes, who, when approached for a comment by journalists – remember that this stuff happened on his watch – said that he couldn’t comment until he’d read more about the case in the papers. In other words, he knew no more about it than you or I did. I wasn’t sure which was worse: that he expected us to believe this, or that it might be true.
But that, it seems, is the way GSK management views these scandals. For a start, there’s a whiff here of old-style orientalism: this is the way they do business in those Eastern countries, so we might as well join in. But the response of Andrew Witty, GSK’s current CEO, is just as astonishing. “Reaching a conclusion in the investigation of our Chinese business is important, but this has been a deeply disappointing matter for GSK”, he said. Uh, give me that again? “Reaching a conclusion is important” – that is, it’s “important” that this case has ended? I’m still struggling to find any objective meaning in these words. “Deeply disappointing” – meaning what, exactly? Disappointing that you got caught? Yes, I can see that. Disappointing that the ruling went against you? You mean, after Reilly admitted he’d done it? Disappointing that you are being run in such a sociopathic way? Missing a friend’s birthday party is disappointing. Pushing drugs on people by bribing doctors is many things, but disappointing isn’t the word that springs to mind.
Witty goes on: “We have and will continue to learn from this.” A shred of comfort here: I can stop worrying about whether my daughter is being taught English well enough to prepare her for a successful career. That aside: you will learn from this? What will you learn? That you shouldn’t bribe doctors? That you should hide malpractice better? That you seem to be rather bad at selecting your senior management? No, there is no lesson to be learnt here. There is just stuff to be deeply ashamed of – more ashamed, even, than is evidenced by taking a quarter of a million cut in your two million quid annual bonus.
Ah, but GSK has learnt. “The company said it had fundamentally changed the incentive programme for its sales force.” In other words, whereas before the incentive programme made it all too tempting to commit crimes, now it doesn’t. Oh, the lessons life teaches us.