Grünenthal put Thalidomide on the market in 1957 as an over the counter drug. The company claimed its sedative was “completely safe” and aggressively promoted their “non-toxic” drug. Between 1957 and 1962 Grünenthal and its licenced distribution companies sold the “wonder drug” in more than 47 countries under different trade names. Thalidomide soon became the company’s bestseller.
What the public did not know is that Grünenthal had no reliable evidence to back up its claims that the drug was safe. They also ignored the increasing number of reports coming in about harmful side-effects as the drug was being widely used. In fact, starting in 1959 Grünenthal was flooded with complaints from doctors about mild to severe and sometimes permanent nerve damage, especially by elderly people who had used the drug as a sleeping aid.
A recent study by the University of Münster in Germany described how Grünenthal officials repeatedly lied to authorities and doctors who reported complaints, often falsely claiming this was the first time they had ever heard about nerve damage. Other times they would dismiss the side effects as “allergic reactions” or “overdoses”. At one point they even stated that “noise exposure in large cities” might have something to do with it. Grünenthal also tried to prevent negative publicity about Thalidomide in the trade press – while at the same reassuring the medical community their drug was safe.
The company was equally dismissive of concerns related to deformed babies. The drug was widely promoted as an anti-nausea drug for pregnant women experiencing morning sickness. When the company was confronted with reports on malformed babies and suggestions that the malformations could be possibly linked to Thalidomide, they didn’t react. Instead of taking all those reports seriously, Grünenthal responded with measures to keep the drug on the market.