Four big pharma companies depriving poor countries of almost €100 million through tax dodging

Four big pharma companies depriving poor countries of almost €100 million through tax dodging

  • New report from Oxfam indicates Ireland’s corporate tax rules allow all four to shift profits to and through Ireland
  • Aid agency calls for greater transparency to end corporate tax dodging

The U.S. pharmaceutical company Abbott paid zero tax on profits of €1.2 billion declared in Ireland in 2015, costing the Irish taxpayer an estimated €155 million that year alone, according to new research based on available data from Oxfam Ireland. 

The report, Hard to Swallow: Facilitating tax avoidance by Big Pharma in Ireland, was published in parallel to Oxfam America’s wider report, Prescription for Poverty, which looks at the harmful tax practices of four of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies - Abbott, Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co (MSD) and Pfizer. All four operate in Ireland and Hard to Swallow indicates that Ireland’s corporate tax rules have allowed them to avoid large amounts of tax by shifting profits to and through Ireland.

Oxfam also determined that Johnson & Johnson recorded profits of €4.31 billion in Ireland in 2015 but only paid an effective tax rate of six percent, €250 million less than they should have paid at Ireland’s corporate tax rate of 12.5%. Added to the Abbott figure, that means just two of the four companies avoided €405 million in tax in just one year.

The aid agency warned that these companies appear to be depriving governments – including several developing countries – of revenue that could be spent on fighting poverty and vital services for the poorest such as public health care.

The report uncovers a trend that suggests these companies are recording very high levels of profit in countries like Ireland with low corporate tax rates, while recording much lower levels in the seven developing countries assessed in this report. For example, Johnson & Johnson’s Thai subsidiaries posted eight percent profit while its Irish subsidiaries posted 38 percent profit for the years 2013-15. During the same period, Abbott made only eight percent profit in Thailand, which has a tax rate of 20 percent, while earning 75 percent profit in Ireland. Nothing they are doing is illegal, they are simply taking advantage of corporate tax rules that allow them to transfer profits from poorer countries to lower their tax bill.

In the wake of numerous tax dodging scandals, including the recent Paradise Papers, these findings undermine the Irish government’s claims that it is implementing appropriate measures to tackle tax avoidance, which contributes to rising inequality and poverty.

Jim Clarken, Oxfam Ireland’s Chief Executive, said: “All four companies have long-standing operations in Ireland and employ a combined total of approximately 10,000 people. The shadow-side of their presence here is their ability to use Ireland as a means to avoid paying taxes on their global operations.

“Our research shows that corporate tax avoidance continues to drive inequality and acts as a barrier to ending poverty by fuelling its root causes. Tax avoidance by the four pharma companies we investigated has deprived the cash-strapped governments of the seven developing countries covered in this report of more than €96.6 million every year – money that could be used to provide quality healthcare and tackle issues like poor sanitation which still affects 2.3 billion people globally.     

“It’s an unacceptable irony that the companies that produce life-saving medicines are depriving governments of money that could be used to save lives. Governments must require all companies to publish financial information for every country where they do business, so it is clear if they are paying their fair share.”

The Irish Government recently outlined its plan to address corporate tax avoidance in the report Ireland’s Corporate Tax Roadmap. All of the items outlined in the roadmap are either compulsory under EU law or have already been signed up to by Ireland. While it will tackle some mechanisms used for corporate tax avoidance, it does not go far enough to address all of the tax dodging mechanisms employed by multinationals, including big pharma companies. Most worryingly, the plan contains few, if any, mechanisms to address corporate tax avoidance that impacts developing countries.

Among a number of recommendations in the report, Oxfam is calling for greater transparency to truly tackle corporate tax avoidance.

Clarken continued: “Because the four pharmaceutical companies we investigated are not required to make public where they make profit and pay taxes, our attempt to quantify their tax avoidance barely scratches the surface.

“However, increased transparency through public Country by Country Reporting, would provide decision-makers, investors, journalists and civil society actors, especially in developing countries, with data to help review and, if necessary, reform corporate tax avoidance practices.”

In order to ensure Ireland’s well-earned reputation of acting fairly and being a champion of the rights of poorer countries, Oxfam is calling on the Irish Government to:

  • Support efforts at EU level to agree meaningful legislation on public Country by Country Reporting
  • Advocate at relevant global forums for a consensus to be reached on a global minimum effective tax rate
  • Address profit-shifting, including signing up to Article 12 of the OECD’S Multilateral Instrument.
  • Review and reform Ireland’s Double Taxation Treaties
  • Strengthen Ireland’s existing Exit Tax regime and subject all new tax incentives to rigorous economic and risk assessments
  • Contribute to a second generation of international tax reforms to address the use of highly mobile value, including IP and other intangible assets.
  • Ensure that developing countries participate in all discussion concerning corporate tax reform on an equal basis

To read the recommendations in full, click here for the full report.


CONTACT: For interviews, images or more information, contact: Alice Dawson-Lyons, Oxfam Ireland – / +353 (0) 83 198 1869


Notes to the Editor:

  • To read Hard to Swallow: Facilitating tax avoidance by Big Pharma in Ireland in full, visit: click here.
  • The seven developing countries covered in Hard to Swallow are: Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, India, Pakistan, Peru and Thailand.
  • This Oxfam Ireland report focuses on four pharmaceutical companies’ practices in Ireland and is published in parallel to a wider report from Oxfam America, Prescription for Poverty: Drug companies as tax dodgers, price gougers and influence peddlers. To see data and analysis for other countries as well as the methodology document, see the Oxfam America report:
  • Oxfam’s methodology is explained in the report in more detail. We used publicly available data on the financial activities of the companies to gauge if their tax payments in a country were aligned with the level of economic activity. In the absence of full information, we used revenue and profits as a proxy for real economic activity. We multiplied the company’s revenues in a country by the global profit margin to estimate profits, assuming uniform profit margins worldwide. While we recognise that margins are inconsistent, we had to assume the opposite for the purposes of this analysis. We applied the country’s statutory tax rate to the estimated profits to estimate how much tax would have been owed if profits were not diverted. Finally, we subtracted actual tax paid in that country from estimated tax owed, to calculate the estimated shortfall. We also spoke to current and former executives from top ten pharmaceutical and accounting firms on condition of anonymity, as well as other tax experts. They described carefully designed corporate structures that systematically minimise the amount of profit that stays in developing countries. We also asked the companies to check and explain our findings and to provide evidence where they differ with our interpretation. We refer to their responses in our report.
  • For Ireland tax losses were calculated based on the difference between the tax the company paid in Ireland and the headline rate of 12.5%. This is the standard way of calculating such ‘tax expenditures’.
  • B-roll footage shows how chronic underfunding of India’s healthcare system has resulted in an encephalitis crisis in Utter Pradesh, India that claimed the lives of over a thousand children in 2017 and left many more permanently disabled. While pharmaceutical companies are not responsible for India’s failing health system, stopping corporate tax dodging is critical to ensuring governments have the resources they need to invest in public services. Pfizer, Merck & Co, Johnson & Johnson, and Abbott appear to have avoided an estimated $74 million a year in tax between 2013 and 2015. This money is more than enough to provide every child born in India during that period with bed nets which help prevent the spread of the disease. The B-roll and shot list is available here.
  • Merck & Co is also known as Merck Sharp & Dohme or MSD in some jurisdictions including Australia and Ireland.

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