Is Your Stock Corrupt?

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Now, with an ever-increasing amount of money distorting scientific studies and policy, voting with your portfolio seems necessary to guarantee a future both you and your descendants can enjoy. The question: Just how bad is corporate influence in science?

Answer: pretty bad
The Union of Concerned Scientists published a report last month detailing "How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public's Expense." It includes many tales of corporate malfeasance -- all stunning in their immoral behavior, but none scarier than those surrounding the drugs we take.

For example, according to the report, GlaxoSmithKline (NYS: GSK) , the pharmaceutical maker of antidepressant Paxil, "commissioned five clinical trials from 1998 to 2002 to assess the drug's efficacy in addressing pediatric and adolescent depression." Of those five trials, four found negative results, including an increased risk of suicide, while one found mixed results. Guess which one GlaxoSmithKline published? Not only did Glaxo only publish the trial with mixed results, but it blocked the FDA's access to the other trials, citing confidentiality agreements. The company settled a lawsuit brought by then-New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer in 2007, and it argued that the unpublished negative results were actually made known through other means, including posters, letters to medical professionals, and face-to-face meetings.

The UCS report also accuses companies of manipulating the studies themselves. It cites one case involving Merck (NYS: MRK) , in which the pharma giant compared arthritis drug Vioxx "to naproxen, a pain reliever sold under brand names such as Aleve, instead of to a placebo." The scientists then incorrectly concluded that naproxen reduced the risk of heart attack, while missing the fact that Vioxx increased the risk of heart complications. Merck settled lawsuits in Canada this past January related to heart complications caused by Vioxx use but says it believes it acted responsibly during clinical trials.

It gets worse. The report says that Pfizer (NYS: PFE) "failed to publish negative results, selectively reported outcomes, and excluded specific patients from analysis" while helping to publish several publications that boosted off-label use of its epilepsy seizure drug, Neurontin. Pfizer also "failed to note that the drug increased the risk of suicide." In response, Pfizer claims its "study results are reported ... in an objective, accurate, balanced and complete manner, with a discussion of the strengths and limitations of the study, and are reported regardless of the outcome of the study."

But it's not new
Of course, corporate influence on science and the resulting policy isn't new. The tobacco industry fought scientific studies for years. As a famous memo from Brown & Williamson, now a part of Reynolds American (NYS: RAI) , said, "Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public."

Big tobacco wasn't the only industry involved in fighting science. In the 1960s, one Dr. Irving Selikoff was researching asbestos and its link to cancer. Asbestos companies hired public relations firms to attack Dr. Selikoff because, as a company memo stated, "Our present concern is to find some way of preventing Dr. Selikoff from creating problems and affecting sales."

In 1976, Ethyl Corporation, a maker of gasoline additives and now a subsidiary of NewMarket (NYS: NEU) , criticized the EPA for regulating lead, stating that it was "the worst example of fanaticism since the New England witch hunts in the Seventeenth Century," and, "No person has ever been found having an identifiable toxic effect from the amount of lead in the atmosphere today."

How to fight it
The societal costs that we pay from the corporate corruption of science outweigh any stock gains. There are several steps that Congress can take to protect our future, like strengthening whistleblower protection laws and placing further restrictions to limit conflicts of interest and the revolving door between the public and private sector.

As investors, we can also take our money out of corporations that put profits above morals and place it in sustainable companies that factor in the costs to society. These sustainable firms not only benefit society, but also have been shown to beat the returns of unsustainable companies by 4.8 percentage points annually from 1993 to 2010.

For a few ideas on sustainable companies to support, check out Fool Alyce Lomax's portfolio. Also, read our free report on companies that plan for the long term: "3 Stocks That Will Help You Retire Rich."

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Dan Newman holds no shares of the companies mentioned above. Follow him @TMFHelloNewman. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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