Friday, April 4, 2014

Multivitamins: Helpful or a Hoax? (2014)

Pfizer Centrum Multivitamins, popular vitamins from the drugstore

For many years, people have taken multivitamins as part of their daily routine with the intentions of staying healthy and making sure their body gets enough vitamins and minerals; because after all, too much of a good thing can't hurt right? False. Though multivitamins, "Centrum" in particular, which is manufactured by Pfizer, advertise their product contributing to living a much healthier lifestyle and feeling better overall, even without an organic diet, the vast majority of Americans get all of the vitamins and minerals they need from the food they eat; and too much of these vitamins can actually be harmful. "If you are ingesting too much of some vitamins or you don't need the vitamin you can overdose or become toxic. Too much iron, for example, can cause diabetes"-Professor Kerryn Phelps. Centrum in particular contains several ingredients that are highly questionable such as BHT, Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Sodium Benzoate, and Talc. BHT can act as a tumor promoter and has been shown to be toxic to the liver, thyroid, kidneys, and even your lungs (Gitalis 1). Sodium Benzoate is a preservative that can cause organ toxicity and Talc has been shown to cause cancer (Gitalis 1). Lastly, Hydrogenated Palm Oil, sounds just like any other oil: olive oil, vegetable oil, fish oil, canola oil; What's the issue? The answer to that is the fact that it is hydrogenated. "Hydrogenating any oil turns the oil rancid and makes it into a strong free radical. Free radicals promote cancer and heart disease" (Gitalis 1). Since ingesting too much of a vitamin(s), or any of these additional ingredients, can actually cause health issues; this poses the question as to whether it is ethical for these companies to continue misleading consumers with their advertising, or if they should release honest statements about their products. These statements would not have to necessarily claim that their product is useless or a complete waste of money, because that is only true for the vast majority of the population; but rather warn people that they may only need to take a specific supplement if they have a severe deficiency. Just as Dr. Brian Morton stated, "Unless you have a true deficiency there is no good evidence to support taking supplements. Calls for the ordinary consumer to take vitamins for better health are misleading ... We should be getting our vitamins from food. What is natural is a piece of fruit, not a pill." In other words, if people are truly concerned about living a healthier lifestyle, they should take the money they spend on multivitamins and spend it on fruit, vegetables, or another natural way to get their vitamins.

StakeholdersThe stakeholders in this situation would be consumers, employees of Pfizer (the company that produces "Centrum" products), shareholders of the company, as well as distributors of the product. In terms of numbers, according to, Pfizer employs approximately 78,400 part time and full time workers, which is much less than the amount of Americans that purchase these multivitamins, so the immediate response would be "do what is best for the consumers." Though this is true, when looking at the situation from a larger scope, if Pfizer released the necessary warnings and adjusted the labeling and advertising accordingly, consumers would be happy because they would be better informed, employees would be happy because it is highly unlikely that the statements would cause an uprising and boycott of Centrum, and the only people that may be negatively effected is the corporate executives because the company's profits may fall by a small percentage. A Utilitarian would make the final decision to provide consumers with honest advertising and labeling, as well as making them aware that they may not need the product unless they have a serious deficiency because it would pertain to the health of the vast majority, which is often perceived as more important than the profits of few.

Ian Read, CEO of Pfizer

Milton Friedman is a Nobel Prize winning economist who formulated the highly influential theory of individualism. Friedman's idea of Individualism is that the only goal of a business is to maximize profits, which will in turn maximize profit for the stockholders or the owner of the company. Though at surface level this statement seems highly debatable, in which many don't agree, on page 55 of the text, An Introduction to Business Ethics, Friedman states,"In a free-enterprise, private property system a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has a direct responsibility to his employers.......and his primary responsibility is to them." This quote basically states that a corporate executive is employed by the owners of that business, whether it is shareholders or privately owned, and the executives responsibility is to make their "employers" happy. He further says within the quote that their responsibility is to conduct business in compliance with the owners' desires, which is generally to maximize profits, while conforming to the rules of society, "both embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom. (DesJardins 55)" Though focusing solely on profits is the most mentioned topic, he also chimes in that they should abide by the law and ethical standards, and the decision to do so is not Friedman's, but the company themselves.
I agree with Friedman's views because if businesses did not make profits, the government would have to subsidize them in order to keep them open, but I also agree with Friedman's idea that corporate executives have a duty to conform with rules of society, as well as the law; which is where it gets tricky with the Pfizer case. Technically, Pfizer did not interfere with any customs embodied in law, and they created a huge market for multivitamins, Centrum in particular, which definitely maximized profits and generated good returns for investors; however at the same time, some of these investors/shareholders could very well be consumers of these multivitamins that are not giving them any health benefits. Even though the argument could be made either way, my perspective is that though they did not do anything illegal, they used people's trust in advertising as a means to make a profit. One could even use this to make a case of exploitation because when thinking about it, Pfizer used consumers lack of rational thinking when it comes to seeing advertisements and took advantage of their weakness in the context that almost every common consumer does not have advanced knowledge on the actual effects of multivitamins, or lack there of. All in all, in terms of individualism, Pfizer did not act in accordance to all the guidelines, thus not acting in an ethical manner from an individualistic standpoint; because they did not act in accordance to the rules embodied in ethical standards by taking advantage of people, or exploiting them in other words.

UtilitarianismUtilitarianism, an ethical theory that originated from works by Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill, has always had, and continues to have a profound impact on politics, economics, public policy, and especially businesses (DesJardins 29). Utilitarian ethics say that we can determine the "ethical significance" of a particular action by looking at the consequences and, in the end, the best decision is the one that maximizes "the overall good," the opposite of authoritarian policies (DesJardins 29). In the case of Centrum, the consequences to look at it can be looked at in a few different ways. One of these ways would be the amount of money people spend on multivitamins with the hopes that they will be receiving some type of boost to their health, and the other perspective could be the health consequences/risks of taking too much of these vitamins and/or minerals. Regardless of the perspective that one may view the situation from, Utilitarianism takes into consideration all of the stakeholders involved, not only the consumers.
Pfizer headquarters in NYC
According to German philosopher Immanual Kant, "our fundamental ethical duty is to treat people with respect (DesJardins 38);" however, according to the power point slides, our actions must be with selfless intentions, and only fueled by the fact that it is the right thing to do. This is shown on the slide titled "Determining the Right Motivation," in which statements, all positive, are looked at to determine which one would be an example of Kantian ethics. Though each statement was positive, the only the third one would be considered an example of Kantian ethics because the shop owner's actions had selfless intentions, were respectful, and his"motivation is from duty and is not simply self-seeking" (Salazar 1).
When looking at the intentions that Pfizer had, they are very bittersweet. Of course they appear to be in the best interest of the consumers because they are "bettering their overall well-being," and who wouldn't want to feel like they are living healthier? Though all seems great, one must realize that if Pfizer's intentions were truly selfless, complying with the guidelines of an ethical decision from a Kantian perspective, they would have given the product away free of charge and not reaped huge profits. According to CNBC News, "The consumer health business, which sells Centrum vitamins, had revenue jump 16 percent, to $936 million," and this was a segment in their nutrition unit that they sold for a gain of $4.8 billion.With the numbers speaking for themselves, it is safe to say that Pfizer clearly violated Kantian views by using profits as their driving force, not selfless intentions, as well as violating the formula for humanity by using people's lack of knowledge to make huge profits.

Virtue Theory Virtue Ethics is "a tradition within philosophical ethics that seeks a full and detailed description of those characteristics, or virtues, that would constitute a good and full human life" (DesJardins 41). In other words, Virtue Ethics is looking beyond if something is good or bad, and rather classifying a person or actions more specifically. These "virtues" are looked at as motivation traits that will lead us to live a meaningful life filled with happiness, or a life of unhappiness; and have been looked at in this way since the time of Aristotle. Aristotle 's four basic virtues are prudence, which is the right judgment and actions at all times; justice, which is always giving people their rights; temperance which is practicing self-control and lastly, courage, the ability to combat fear and uncertainty.
In the situation of Pfizer's Centrum multivitamin controversy, the two virtues that were seemingly violated were prudence and courage. Prudence was violated because they did not use the right judgement when choosing the advertising and labeling of Centrum multivitamins; on the basis that the actual effect on one's overall health was just about zero unless they had a severe deficiency, or if they consumed too much of a particular vitamin(s), it would have a negative effect. They chose to advertise in a way that portrayed the product as a necessity to living a healthy lifestyle. Lastly, the virtue of courage was clearly violated because it took scientific studies being conducted for the truth to be revealed behind the product; which implies that Pfizer could not face the fear that profits may fall if consumers found out the truth of the null effects. This also ties into the inability to face the uncertainty of what would happen if they released statements about effectiveness or even just changed their labels and advertising claims. In order to rectify these violated virtues, Pfizer should just admit to the lack of effectiveness of their multivitamins, accept the consequences (because of the size of the company they probably would not be affected that much) and focus on creating different vitamin/mineral type products that would actually provide benefits to the population that could be more specific, i.e. targeting certain deficiencies, health conditions, or preventing health issues; and advertise them accordingly in an honest manner.

Conclusion To wrap it all up...after analyzing each ethical theory and how Centrum (ultimately their manufacturer Pfizer) violates each of them; the overall solution seems to be that Pfizer should be honest with consumers and inform them that unless they have a severe deficiency, they do not need a multivitamin because over-supplementing your body can be toxic. Again, just as Dr. Brian Morton stated, "Unless you have a true deficiency there is no good evidence to support taking supplements. Calls for the ordinary consumer to take vitamins for better health are misleading ... We should be getting our vitamins from food. What is natural is a piece of fruit, not a pill."

DesJardins, J. (n.d.). An intodruction to business ethics (5th ed.).

Gitalis, J. (n.d.). The truth behind centrum: Supplement or chemical cocktail? Retrieved from Image Search
Pfizer number of employees. (n.d.). Retrieved April 4, 2014, from

Pfizer profit quadruples on sale of nutrition unit. (2013, January 29). Retrieved April 4, 2014, from

Salazar, Heather. “Kantian Business Ethics,” in Business in Ethical Focus, ed. Fritz
Allhoff and Anand J. Vaidya (Broadview Press, 2008).

Squires, R. (2012, March 18). Vitamins: A hazard to life-saver or your wealth. Retrieved from

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