Thalidomide Babies

It has been more than a decade since the world learned that a sedative drug called thalidomide, taken by pregnant women, had resulted in the birth of about 10,000 horribly deformed, limbless babies in a dozen countries, mostly West Germany, England and Japan. There are about 400 thalidomide children in England. Most of them have still received no compensation for their injuries and maintenance from the giant Distillers corporation which produced and marketed the drug, under the trade name Distaval, as “completely safe for pregnant women and nursing mothers.”

This tragic situation has received front-page attention in British newspapers in recent weeks as the negotiations between thalidomide parents, the government and Distillers reached a showdown.

In 1971, Distillers, whose profits exceeded $150 million last year, made a bloc offer of $7.8 million for settling all the cases. Under great financial duress, most of the parents were ready to accept this paltry sum which averaged $20,000 per child. A few parents refused, however, and Distillers imperiously stated that unless all accepted the offer would be withdrawn. It even tried unsuccessfully to have the courts remove the dissenting parents from representing their children. The company’s bargaining power was considerably enhanced by the utterly archaic state of English law when it comes to awarding justice to victims of hazardous consumer products.

The tide finally began to move against Distillers last September when The London Sunday Times began publishing a series of articles about the entire thalidomide tragedy and the behavior of Distillers. The company filed suit and obtained an injunction against The Times to stop a forthcoming article, arguing that it would prejudice the case in court. This move, of course, only heightened interest in the case among the British press.

Events began to move quickly. Spontaneous boycotting of Distillers products, which include such well-known Scotch whiskies as Johnny Walker, Haig, Dewars, Vat 69 and Booth’s, Gordon’s and Tanqueray gin, converged with public criticism by several large institutional shareholders of the company. On December 14, Distillers raised its offer to $28 million over ten years provided the government permit it tax deductibility. The furor intensified as the government rejected this attempt to make the taxpayer bear a large portion of the financial burden. Several supermarket chains announced they were boycotting Distillers products. Major banks and insurance companies associated with the company publicly criticized what they said was an inadequate offer.

Early this month, Alexander McDonald, the crusty accountant who heads Distillers multinational operations, was called to London by the financial establishment and given some advice. Make a better offer, he was advised, or this matter could lead to more government regulation and a boycott of Distillers products in other countries, notably the United States. On January 5, McDonald announced an offer of $51 million spread over a ten year period, or about an average of $120,000 for each victim. No provision was made for a spiraling inflation or for back interest payments.

By comparison, in the United States a thalidomide child received $800,000 in one case. Other children received settlements far in excess of Distillers’ latest offer from Richardson-Merrell, the American drug company which clinically tested thalidomide on a few pregnant mothers before the Food and Drug Administration moved to block sale in this country and averted a major tragedy.

Elsewhere in Western Europe, such as West Germany and Scandinavia, the culpable companies, Chemie Grunenthal and AB Astraa, finally agreed to payments even lower than the latest Distillers offer. But in other countries the children have received nothing. In Ireland at least 84 thalidomide children have been located. They and their parents have received nothing. The German company, Chemie Grunenthal, offered the hard-pressed parents several hundred to a few thousand dollars provided they bring their children to Germany for inspection. In Japan, where there are more than 1000 thalidomide children, and in Argentina, Italy, Brazil and other nations, even less is known about these limb-less 10, 11, 12 and 13 year olds.

Citizen pressure has had an impact on Distillers. But more needs to be done to assemble the facts and secure justice for children in England and other countries. Anyone who wishes to join this consumer effort may write to my associate, Donald Ross, P. 0. Box 14189, Washington, D. C. 20044.

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