1- Introduction and Historical Approach
Pfizer Inc. is considered the world’s third largest independent biotech company by market capitalization (USD 215.98). It is a research-based, global biopharmaceutical company that applies science and its global resources to bring therapies to people that extend and significantly improve their lives through the discovery, development and manufacture of healthcare products. Its global portfolio includes medicines and vaccines, as well as many of the world’s best-known consumer healthcare products.
Pfizer’s strategy is rooted in four distinctive axes that, as per the company’s website, have remained constant since they began to transform it in 2011. These 4 strategies are:
- ability to innovate in biomedical R&D and develop a new generation of high value, highly differentiated medicines and vaccines ;
- invest and allocate its resources in ways that create the greatest long-term returns for its shareholders ;
- earn society’s respect by generating breakthrough therapies, improving access, expanding the dialogue on health care and acting as a responsible corporate citizen ; and finally
- build and sustain a culture where colleagues view themselves as owners, generating new ideas, dealing with problems in a straightforward way, investing in open and candid conversations and working as teammates on challenges and opportunities.
In this document I intend to analyze the company’s ESG performance, describe some controversies found on the media and challenge some of the above mentioned arguments which in my opinion do not fully convince a responsible investor.
2- Analysis of Pfizer’s Sustainability Report using the Global Reporting Initiative database
According to its 2016 Annual Report, the company has a very positive milestone with 96 assets in its product pipeline (as of January 2017), 63 sites worldwide, 96’500 employees across 160 countries (as of December 31, 2016) and a total revenue of USD 52.82 Billion.
The company is very active in donations for patients, as it is shown on the report, more than 250m doses of Prevenar® 13 were delivered to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, protecting infants in 45 low-income nations worldwide. It has expanded its assistance program for large-scale humanitarian crises. Also for the 19th consecutive year, more than 120m doses of the antibiotic Zithromax® was donated to support International Trachoma Initiative and flight the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness.
Pfizer is focused on Innovation. Its strategy is clearly anchored on developing new medicines and vaccines to significantly improve the lives of patients and generating returns that attract further investments. The company focus on research and development in the following areas of expertise: biosimilars, inflammation and immunology, metabolic disease and cardiovascular risks, neuroscience, oncology, rare disease and vaccines.
The company has also made further progress in reaching its 2020 environmental sustainability goals related to greenhouse gas, waste and water reductions. It has launched a new goal focused on reducing its environmental footprint with key suppliers and strategic research partners.
I have noted that Pfizer’s website and Annual Report stress the company’s rigorous process for evaluating projects and its continuous research on new therapies for improving the quality of life of people who live with debilitating health conditions. It has implemented a company-wide campaign on Integrity, in order to reinforce a culture of compliance, integrity and accountability throughout the organization. However, this seems quite contradictory given the numerous lawsuits the company has been facing in past and recent years regarding product transparency and more generally speaking governance issues, as it will be demonstrated later in this document.
Sustainability reports of Pfizer vs. Novartis based on the Global Reporting Initiative database
When analyzing the GRI database, the Annual Review 2016 sustainability report for Pfizer published in 2016, is a GRI – G4 report type, fully integrated and in alignment with the SDGs. The company has relied on elements of each of the reporting framework (GRI, SASB and IIRC) in developing the 2016’s Annual Review. It is interesting to note that the company mentions full support to Good health and Well-being (3) and its activities towards reaching alignment with other SDGs such as tackling Poverty, Hunger, Gender Equality, Clean Energy, Decent Work & Economic Growth, Innovation & Infrastructure, Sustainable Cities & Communities, Responsible Consumption & Production, Climate Action, Life beyond Water, Life on Land and Peace & Justice (respectively Goals 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16). In my opinion, these seem a lot of goals to be reached.
On page 34 of the Annual Report, Pfizer describes the SDGs that it desires to contribute in its mission as an R&D-based biopharmaceutical company. I have noted that substantial efforts are being made on the following topics: Good health and Well-being (3), Clean water and Sanitation(6), Gender Equality(5), Innovation(9), Sustainable Cities and Communities(11), Responsible Consumption and Production(12), Partnerships for the Goals. These can definitely comfort the company’s position in ESG evaluation.
However, I will argue later in this document a Greenwashing effect, in the sense that if a company state that all efforts are done to positively contribute to Environment, Health and Safety issues, how can it continuously receive severe critics from the media regarding :
- Violation of sanitation procedures in the proper handling of drugs (example in China), and
- Manipulation of drug price: Example of Phenytoin sodium capsules which serve as an epilepsy treatment.
On a positive note, Pfizer has decided to track its 2020 Environmental sustainability goals, so it shows that it can reach its GHG reduction emissions by roughly half from 2000 to 2014. Other sectors in which the company is active are amount of waste disposed, and water withdrawal. It has also encouraged colleagues to go to work by bus, bike and walking, progressing in 2016 towards its 2020 SDG goals.
On its Annual Report however, Novartis limits its coverage of the UN SDGs to only 5 goals: directly tackle Good Health and Well-Being (3), through its business operations it makes contributions to cent Work & Economic Growth (8), Innovation (9) and Climate Change (13). Further information is also provided on how it has embedded climate change into its corporate strategy with a vision 2030 on Environmental Sustainability and its goals to reduce GHG emissions by 30% by 2020, and by 50% by 2030. Moreover, it mentions very ambitious targets of protecting water quality and decreasing water consumption, reducing its carbon footprint of its global supply chain.
3- Major ESG issues found
The following non-exhaustive list summarizes the major ESG issues that Pfizer is facing:
- Product transparency: what is the impact of neglecting side-effect information of its products on the population
- Corporate governance : lobbying issues
- Recycling : management of its product recycling process and packaging: plastic folios, carton packages, paper instruction notices
- Human rights : what are the working conditions for employees in the different communities across the world
- Energy and Climate Change: how can its goals of reducing GHG emissions by 20% be achieved in a timely and efficient manner, and what are health risks resulting from climate change.
When analyzing the company’s website, one comes across quite a comprehensive list of issues being considered and tackled under the Responsibility/Protecting_Environment section named ‘Pfizer’s Green Journey’. Main topics explained are:
- Climate Change
- Energy Efficiency
- Water Use
- Waste and Recycling
- Preserving Natural Resources
- Greener Workplace
- Greener Processes
- Product Packaging
In this section, it is communicated that an Environmental Sustainability Council governs Pfizer’s “green journey” program and focuses on three areas key to its business: helping to mitigate climate change and its impacts; minimizing the environmental impact of products and processes by advancing stewardship across the supply chain and life cycle of products; and managing water resources in a sustainable way. The company has taken the following actions:
- Energy and Climate Change: continue to actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing energy efficiency and implementing clean energy projects where they make good business and environmental sense. Its goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 2012 to 2020, building on successful past reductions of 20% from 2000 to 2007, and 25% from 2007 to 2012.
- Greener Processes: minimize the potential impact its products can have – from discovery through to use and disposal. Look for innovative ways to reduce its packaging and waste, and additional opportunities to recycle. The 2020 goal is to reduce the amount of waste by 15% compared with 2012.
- Cleaner Water: continue to assess its global water footprint, decrease water use, and reuse water through water recycling, when possible. Its 2020 goal is to reduce water use by 5% compared to 2012.
Pfizer mentions that it aims to use its global presence and scale to address these issues and ultimately make a difference in local communities and the world. The company shall support, enhance, and engage the local communities where it operates, set a new industry standard of excellence for protecting and improving the world, and finally drive strategic environmental actions that deliver measurable social and business value. Interesting to note the importance of such information for a responsible investor, given that these are company’s voluntary actions. However, given the amount of revenues that the company reaches year over year, one could think the company has enough resources not only to address these 3 main environmental issues, but also and certainly, many more.
4- Pfizer’s strong Financial Performance and Philanthropic Initiatives
While analyzing the company’s website, one of the major strength identified was the amount of resources available. In 2016 the company returned USD 12.3 billion to shareholders through share repurchases and dividends. This was its 8-year record of increasing Pfizer’s dividend. This strong revenue growth was due to the performance of a differentiated and diverse group of new and older products. Also during the same year, the share price increased approx. 79% in line with the S&P 500 (approx. 80%).
This financial strength gives the company the opportunity to create initiatives such as employee volunteering in its various local communities, which have an important impact not only on the social side, but also on the corporate environment. These volunteering initiatives bring great benefits for its employees, namely an increase of employee motivation and their engagement towards the company, a better working environment and a significant strengthening of the company’s brand.
It is also seen in the media that Pfizer strengthens its engagement in the fight against cancer by offering innovative therapies, financially supporting less-developed countries like Rwanda via the Pfizer Foundation. In February 2018 for World Cancer Day, the company indicated that it will invest more than USD 310 million to develop therapies in its oncology division.
5- Exploring the EthicalQuote News Monitor from Covalence: controversies found
Due to negligence and deficient product transparency, Pfizer has been facing several lawsuit cases from patients who have developed skin cancer while using Viagra. Below is a short overview of evidences from Covalence EthicalQuote News Monitor:
Plaintiff Leslie S. filed the Viagra skin cancer lawsuit on Feb. 19, 2018. He says that he began taking the medication on July 30, 2012, and continued its use through March 11, 2016. However, he alleges that because of being prescribed Viagra, he was diagnosed with melanoma on Feb. 22, 2016, the Viagra skin cancer lawsuit states. The Viagra skin cancer lawsuit was filed on multiple counts of negligence; Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices, including fraud, unlawfulness, and unfairness; defective design, failure to warn; failure to test; breach of express warranty; breach of implied warranty; fraudulent misrepresentation and concealment; negligent misrepresentation and concealment; fraud and deceit; among others.
The impacts of such a conclusion can be huge, as it is approximated that almost 23 million men have been prescribed Viagra worldwide for treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED). Viagra became approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, a 2014 study discovered that men who use medications such as Viagra (sildenafil) were “84% more likely to develop melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, over a period of 10 years.” Although the study does not show that Viagra causes melanoma, it does iterate that there is a significantly higher risk for developing melanoma from the use of Viagra or other erectile dysfunction medications. Simply put, the study sheds light on some of the various ways melanoma can develop.
It is worth noting that this case does not restrict to Pfizer. When compared with its peers, I have found that numerous cancer studies have linked prescription medications such as Viagra®, Levitra® and Cialis® to the development of melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer.
6- Identifying competitors and review how the company situates itself compared with peers
In order to have a more exhaustive evaluation on Pfizer’s ESG issues, I have extended my research to a comparison with Novartis AG. I have also extended part of my research of these companies to the Annual General Meeting and their results from the year 2016.
It clearly comes as a result that Novartis has a better note than Pfizer, for the following reasons:
The MSCI ESG Research Impact Monitor report dated March 2016 has identified the following controversies on Pfizer:
- Pfizer has been the subject to lawsuits related to the safety and labelling of drugs that it manufactures. The company faced a class-action lawsuit regarding false advertising, withholding information on health risks, and off-label marketing of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs Bextra® and Celebrex®;
- The company also faces lawsuits related to antidepressants such as Zoloft® and Effexor® in early pregnancy;
- Chantix® & Champix® causing aggressive behavior and suicide. Also epilepsy-drug Neurontin® for various off-label conditions;
- Violation of sanitation procedures in the proper handling of drugs in China ;
- Manipulation of the price of Phenytoin sodium capsules which serve as an epilepsy treatment
- In February 2016, Pfizer agreed to pay a huge amount to settle a lawsuit alleging that the company violated False Claims Act by overcharging state Medicaid programs for its drug Protonix® between 2001 and 2006. The company was charged with failing to report drug side effects in a timely manner in Japan and illegally paying pharmacies fees to promote Viagra® in China.
One could argue how such an international pharmaceutical giant, with USD 52.8 billion revenues, fails to provide full, accurate and understandable side-effect disclosures and falls under these kind of procedures.
Review of Pfizer and Novartis on the 2016 Access to Medicine Index Overall Ranking
In 2016, moderate progress is visible in the pharmaceutical industry’s efforts to improve access to medicine. Novartis is on the top 5, GSK leads for the fifth time, ahead of Johnson & Johnson and Merck KGaA. Pfizer is number 14, with a change of 2 scores from number 16 in 2015.
In terms of General Access to Medicine Management, in the section evaluating how the companies perform, Pfizer’s overall scores is 14, whereas Novartis is number 3, right after GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson.
For Novartis on position 3, it is a relatively high-scoring area. The top five companies are close to matching stakeholders’ expectations. Scores fall gradually toward the lower end of the ranking: the higher-ranked companies take increasingly refined approaches to improving access to medicine.
GSK leads for the fifth time ahead of Johnson & Johnson, Novartis and Merck KGaA. Critically, these companies show needs-orientation, matching actions to externally identified priorities in the access agenda. For example, they invest in R&D for urgently needed products, even where commercial incentives are lacking. Their access strategies support commercial objectives, with clear business rationales.
For Pfizer, in some rankings it lags its peers, stepped down from 13 (in 2014) to 19 (in 2016) in Market influence & Compliance. The lower-middle group also includes companies like Bayer, Takeda, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Roche and AbbVie. These companies delivered a mixed performance overall, and their rankings in this area have largely not changed. A common area of weakness is the transparency of their stakeholder engagement activities and approaches. Some companies also have limited or no incentive structures to reward the achievement of access-related targets, and are less innovative.
Review of Pfizer and Novartis on the ESG Vigeo-Eiris Ranking
Novartis has an A score on the Vigeo-Eiris ESG rating, so much better than Pfizer, which has a C score, so looking middle-range with a slight positive note.
Review of Pfizer and Novartis on the ISS Proxy Voting Platform
On the ISS QualityScore specific for governance, Pfizer scores 2 in Governance, a decile score from 1 to 10, 10 being a higher governance risk. Novartis however scores 5. This could be explained by the past controversies faced by Novartis in 2015-2016. A wholly-owned subsidiary of Novartis is alleged to have engaged in bribery in Turkey. Novartis and its subsidiaries have also been accused of bribery in South Korea and China, and have paid fines for an alleged kickback scheme in the United States. The company and its subsidiaries have also been allegedly involved in controversies related to gender discrimination, price collusion, and violations of consumer protections.
7- Screening of Governance Practices in the Pharmaceutical Industry
The need of essential drugs in less developed countries:
An article from Public Eye demonstrated that obtaining treatment is today more like a privilege of the rich than a right for all. Despite the major medical and technological advances of recent decades, millions of people in poor countries die every year of diseases that are curable or controllable in Switzerland, for lack of access to treatment and drugs. A scandal for which the Swiss pharmaceutical industry shares responsibility, with the complicity of the Swiss authorities.
My research has led to the following facts and figures:
- Almost one person in three in the world does not have access to essential drugs.
- Infectious diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis are predominant in the countries of the South.
- 80% of deaths related to non-transmissible chronic illnesses, such as cancer or diabetes, occur in countries with low and middle incomes.
- Patents increase the price of drugs, which are unaffordable for the majority of the populations of the countries with less income.
- Patents delay the arrival on the market of inexpensive generic drugs on which the disadvantaged countries depend.
The countries of the North and their pharmaceutical companies exert constant pressure to strengthen the level of protection of intellectual property of the drugs, beyond the international standards of the WTO. Swiss pharmaceutical giants like Roche and Novartis are regularly singled out for their anti-competitive practices and lack of transparency.
What can the company’s Board of Directors say on that subject? In my opinion, I notice the tendency leaders of multinational companies have to communicate two distinctive speeches and have them always ready for the audience. On the one hand, the speech for financial analysts with full of figures, profits, and dividends to distribute. On the other hand, the speech for employees, politicians or the Davos Forum which evokes the company’s core business, its social integration, its environmental and social challenges.
Health concerns regarding drug testing in countries with limited resources:
In June 2016, a report from Public Eye was published concerning clinical tests made in Egypt, Ukraine, Russia, India and Argentina. The main issue shown is that pharmaceutical multinationals act in violation of ethical directives, since part of the tested drugs will never be homologated in the countries where tests are performed, or in the case of homologation, they are done at prohibited prices which are then out of reach for almost the whole population.
The difficulty for countries with limited resources is threefold:
- For patients, those drug tests are often the only opportunity they have to get better, since they do not have the economic ground to afford such specific drugs;
- Patients could also be afraid of being excluded from a clinical test if they signal side-effects of the tested drug, if they ask too many questions about the sponsor or if they criticize testing conditions in their respective countries;
- Doctors are more likely to remain silent due to the highly important revenue source of those clinical tests, it is well known that many clinics depend on multinational’s support for their infrastructures.
Moreover, not respecting ethical norms while performing clinical tests could lead to negative consequences not only on test participants, but potentially also on all persons who are likely to need treatment. If, for example, patients do not dare to signal certain side-effects of an experimental test by fear of being excluded from the testing phase, results could be false. This could result in a social and economic issue for the drug testing participant, the intermediary doctor as well as for the multinational providing the drugs.
It is a fact that during testing phases performed in countries where the population is very vulnerable and having poor regulatory norms, the company’s social and environmental responsibility should be even higher. Pharmaceutical companies must guarantee that patients are fully aware of the risks undertaken when participating to experimental drug testing. Also those clinical tests should in principle take place in those countries where tested drugs will benefit the whole population in the future.
8- Lobbying practices of Pfizer and Novartis’ lobbying against public interests
Pfizer’s lobbying activities and policies screening
In my review of documentation from Pfizer’s AGM research material on the ISS proxy voting platform, the company says that public policy affects its ability to meet patient needs and provide shareholder value, as essential aspects of its operation ‘’are being challenged by barriers to access, counterfeits, illegal importation and challenges to intellectual property protection’’. Given this, the company participates in policy dialogue to explain its perspective, which is supported by knowledge of health care, efficiency, public health, disease prevention and health education. Moreover, the company states that in the US there are federal and state lobbying registration and disclosure laws with which it complies, providing even a link to the US senate lobbying disclosure act database, where individuals can search for those filings.
Another disclosure tactic from the company is that it says its quarterly reports that it files with the federal government includes the amount spent on federal lobbying by trade associations of which Pfizer is a member. However, one could argue the lack of governance discipline, more precisely the company’s board oversight in this specific case. The company states that the board plays an important role in Pfizer’s public policy engagement and political participation. The company’s proxy statement also discusses the role of its government affairs leaders, which has the responsibility of annually reviewing the company’s support of trade and industry groups. Furthermore, it is well known that members of the executive leadership team and Pfizer’s CEO evaluate the company’s memberships, when necessary, as it is done in any other company of the health sector.
I can therefore conclude that, while the company provides a partial list of its current trade association memberships, it does not disclose the portion of the dues and other payments used by these organizations for lobbying purposes. Also, the company does not provide information about management-level oversight of its direct and indirect lobbying activities, and it is unclear if the corporate committee’s oversight of the company’s political spending practices includes Pfizer’s lobbying activities. Such information would allow shareholders to assess the company’s management of its lobbying –related activities and to better understand the risks and benefits of these activities.
Novartis against Colombia, or when a global pharmaceutical company insists in defending its business model
In its magazine of June 2017, Public Eye has shown how Novartis has made pressure in Colombia regarding the license it was supposed to accept for cancer-treatment drug Glivec®. In April, Public Eye disclosed confidential documents revealing intense pressures made by Novartis. The pharmaceutical multinational threated the country of Colombia to go into international court for supposed violation of the bilateral agreement related to investments, signed in 2006, between Switzerland and Colombia.
The approach of Novartis, associated to intense diplomatic pressures from Switzerland and the United States – the latter having even threatened the financing of peace process in Colombia – has been such, that it intentionally pushed public health authorities in Colombia to accept a simple price reduction, for fear of international reprisals. Moreover, it has been proved that Novartis, via the Colombian Federation of Pharmaceutical laboratories Afidro, has also exercised political pressure in Colombia.
One can argue why a multinational company is opposing the country so strenuously with a drug that has already brought more than CHF 41 billion in 10 years? Maybe it wants to avoid any precedent that could result in a future change of its business model? It appears that companies in the pharmaceutical industry use all of their legal and staff resources to avoid these situations jeopardize their very lucrative business. These kind of operations and pressure making certify once more the determination companies from the industry to place their commercial interests and profit earnings above those of public health and human rights.
9- Situation of both companies in the matrix of proactive-reactive-indifferent
After a thorough review of the database provided by Covalence for Pfizer and Novartis, results show that the companies situate themselves in the reactive side. The negative news on the media clearly push these companies to communicate, as well as to react towards a better-seen effect on several topics such as transparency and governance.
In my opinion, it does not seem that the companies would be indifferent to ESG issues nor to negative news in the media, and they also take various initiatives in order to avoid finding themselves in troubles.
An example of their reactive position is shown in the following examples:
- In 2017, Pfizer entered into the settlement agreement of$94 million to resolve allegations that it used fraudulent patents to delay generic competition for its anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex. The lawsuit, brought by 32 direct purchasers of Celebrex in April and certified a class action lawsuit in August, claimed Pfizer attempted to revive its invalidated patent by making material misrepresentations to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. As a result, the U.S. PTO granted Pfizer a new patent based on this reportedly inaccurate information. This news has been positively seen by the wide audience.
- As part of its activities to mark World Antibiotic Awareness week in November 2017 Pfizer, has committed to stop the menace as it promises to offer the industry’s largest and one of the most diverse portfolios of anti-infectives, that includes more than 80 medicines. The fact that antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development is well-known nowadays. In its statement, the company noted “We recognize the medical needs of people suffering from infectious diseases, and are committed to being a holistic provider of prevention and treatment solutions beyond just medicines. We strive to be a leader in this space, partnering with the infectious disease community to protect the public health from infectious disease, now and in the future.”
10- Considering the integration of Pfizer in a portfolio
As a responsible shareholder, I would consider integrating Pfizer in the portfolio and engage with the company to request what are the immediate measures it intends to take to solve its main ESG issues.
Concerning the Environmental Protection in the Manufacture, investors could find comfort in the information provided by the company in regards to the use and disposal of its medicines. Pfizer is signatory to the Industry Roadmap for Progress on Combating Antimicrobial Resistance, therefore committed to the pharma industry’s efforts to reduce environmental impact of the production of antibiotics. This commitment should however bring significant results in the reduction goal of its products waste.
Concerning the disposal of unwanted medicines, the company mentions that it is aware of stakeholders concerns associated with improper disposal of expired or unwanted prescription and non-prescription medicines. However, there seems to be little or no action taken in this regard, aside from the fact that a dedicated online resource mentioning recommendations on disposal practices for all its products.
I also believe that the company should make more efforts in order to minimize ESG issues, and start with ‘a better understanding of its environmental footprint, its impact, and how it’s changing the world’. As it is written in its Green Journey section website, the company should take a greater collaborative entrepreneurial approach to sustainability practices that produce measurable value for its patients, its business and the society.
Finally, I would like to quote Pfizer’s CEO Ian Read, from a compelling article that he wrote on February 19th entitled “You Gain Respect in Drops, But Can Lose It in Gallons,”
“Reputation, built on our past, shapes our present and future. A good reputation can open many doors; a bad reputation can close many more. A good reputation generates respect. A bad reputation breeds suspicion.”
Although the CEO stresses the importance of a company’s reputation, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, more efforts must be made in order to avoid as much as possible transparency issues on a variety of fronts such as the publication of clinical trial data, hiding or minimization of drug side-effects. Recent articles in the media indicate that the biopharmaceutical industry has been making progress in terms of payments to physicians, so maybe a strong shareholder engagement could also incentivize management leaders and members from the Board of Directors of companies like Pfizer to make even more progress on other aspects showing significant deficiencies, and fulfill their desire to protect global public health.
Thank you for your attention.
Pfizer’s website and UN Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform
ESG News Monitor, Sample Pharmaceutical Companies from EthicalQuote, Covalence
GRI Annual Review 2016 for Pfizer: http://database.globalreporting.org/reports/46528/
GRI Annual Review 2016 for Novartis http://database.globalreporting.org/reports/48739/
ESG research reports from ISS Proxy exchange platform and ISS-Ethix research
Vigeo-Eiris ESG Rating Services
Public Eye Magazine