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A judge has slashed the amount Monsanto has to pay in a lawsuit over a common weed-killer chemical’s cancer risk

A judge has slashed the amount Monsanto has to pay in a lawsuit over a common weed-killer chemical’s cancer risk

A woman uses a Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller spray without glyphosate in a garden in Ercuis near Paris, France.

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A woman uses a Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller spray without glyphosate in a garden in Ercuis near Paris, France.
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Benoit Tessier/Reuters
  • A jury recently ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to a plaintiff who alleged that his cancer was the result of using Roundup, the company’s popular herbicide.
  • On Wednesday, a California judge cut that amount to $49 million.
  • Neither the original trial nor the latest finding mean that glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup – causes cancer.
  • Instead, the jury’s ruling is based on their assertion that Monsanto intentionally kept information about Roundup’s potential risks hidden from the public.
  • The science linking glyphosate and cancer is limited at best, and experts say it’s safe.

A jury in San Francisco this summer ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to a school groundskeeper who developed cancer after years of using Roundup, the company’s popular herbicide. But on Wednesday, a California judge dealt a major blow to that decision, reducing the penalty to $49 million or about a fifth of the original amount.

Importantly, neither the trial’s original outcome – nor the latest decision – reveal anything about the science behind Roundup and cancer.

Instead, the decisions simply shed light on how a judge and members of a jury felt about whether Monsanto (which recently merged with chemical giant Bayer and announced plans to dissolve its name) intentionally kept information about Roundup’s potential harms from the public.

While the jury clearly felt Monsanto hid information, the judge in the latest ruling appeared to believe they were less at fault than originally decided. The lawsuit is just the first part of what could be a decades-long legal fight over Roundup’s chief ingredient, a chemical called glyphosate.

When it comes to the science, the evidence tying glyphosate to cancer is limited at best. Most scientists say that it is safe to use.

Could Roundup have caused someone’s cancer? Probably not.

Monsanto Co's Roundup shown for sale in California

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Monsanto Co’s Roundup shown for sale in California
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Thomson Reuters

Before developing a type of cancer known as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the plaintiff in the recent trial, Dewayne Johnson, had used Roundup regularly in his job as a groundskeeper at a California public school. For neglecting to alert Johnson (and the rest of the public) about the potential links between Roundup and cancer, the jury ordered Monsanto to pay Johnson $39 million to cover his medical bills, pain, and suffering, plus an additional $250 million for punitive damages (or punishment).

But as for whether Roundup could actually have been the sole or even primary cause of an individual’s cancer, the research leans heavily toward “no.”

The scare over a potential link between Roundup and cancer appears to have begun with a now widely-criticized statement put out by a World Health Organization group known as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015.

That year, the IARC put glyphosate – Roundup’s active ingredient – in a cancer-risk category one level below widely-recognized harmful activities like smoking. But several researchers have said the IARC’s determination was bogus because there is no evidence that glyphosate causes cancer. In fact, a lengthy review found that the IARC had edited out portions of the documents they used to review glyphosate to make the chemical look far more harmful than its own research had concluded.

During the latest court case, Monsanto attempted to counter plaintiff Johnson’s claims that Roundup caused his cancer using extensive testimony from expert witnesses. They pointed out that the evidence definitively linking the glyphosate in Roundup to cancer is scant. More broadly, figuring out what caused one individual’s cancer is a tricky business for any scientist – a point several experts have made since the most recent Monsanto verdict came out last week.

“This verdict is just the first in what could be a long legal battle over Roundup, and proving causality in such cases is not easy,” Richard Stevens, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine who specializes in cancer and its causes, wrote in a recent post for The Conversation.

New research could change the controversial classification of glyphosate

The IARC’s 2015 statement is not final.

“The agency has often changed its classification of an agent based on new evidence after initial evaluation,” Stevens wrote. “Sometimes it has become more certain that the agent poses a hazard, but in other cases it has downgraded the hazard.”

Based on new studies (typically in mice), glyphosate could go from its current status – where some people see it as a potential cancer risk – to being recognized as having a very low risk for harm.

Several studies of glyphosate and cancer are ongoing, and more are coming out each year. Just last year, a review of studies looking at the ties between glyphosate and cancer concluded that in the low amounts of that people are actually exposed to, glyphosate “do[es] not represent a public concern.”

Conversely, the new evidence could come out strongly against glyphosate and suggest that it’s incredibly harmful. As Stevens points out, new evidence dramatically changed the public perception of another popular product which was initially labeled cancerous – a zero-calorie sweetener called saccharin, which is sold under the brand name Sweet’ N Low.

In the 1980s, any product containing the sweetener was required to carry a warning label saying that it was “determined to cause cancer.” But the science was flawed: the rats that had been used in the studies were especially prone to bladder cancer, and the findings did not apply to people. So in 2016, the sweetener was removed from a list of cancer-causing ingredients.

But glyphosate’s status remains to be seen. For now, the court cases merely reflect the determinations of juries and judges – not the conclusions of the majority of scientific experts.

Pharmacy startup Blink Health just filed a $250 million lawsuit against a company it claims is an ‘unlawful copycat scheme’

Pharmacy startup Blink Health just filed a $250 million lawsuit against a company it claims is an ‘unlawful copycat scheme’

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Blink Health
  • Blink Health, a pharmacy startup that provides discounts to prescription drugs and has raised $165 million in funding, is suing a competitor it claims is an “unlawful copycat scheme.”
  • The lawsuit alleges Hippo, a new startup founded by former Blink Health executives, got ahold of Blink Health’s trade secrets and unfairly uses them to compete with Blink Health.
  • Blink Health is seeking $50 million in damages already caused, along with $200 million in punitive damages for a total of $250 million.

Blink Health is suing a pharmacy startup it claims is an “unlawful copycat scheme.”

Blink Health, a startup that helps negotiate lower drug prices, was founded by 35-year-old Geoffrey Chaiken and 32-year-old Matthew Chaiken. The company is now suing Hippo, a company founded by former Blink Health executives that operates under a similar format to deliver prescription drug discounts.

In its complaint, Blink Health claims violations of the Defend Trade Secrets Act, alleging that Hippo got ahold of Blink Health’s trade secrets and has and continues to use “stolen property for its own benefit and in unfair competition with Blink at thousands of ‘pharmacies nationwide.’”

The company is seeking $50 million in damages, along with $200 million in punitive damages, for a total of $250 million.

“No company should be allowed to cheat and steal its way into existence, as Hippo is trying to do,” Blink Health’s attorney Orin Synder said in a statement sent to Business Insider.

8VC, which led Blink’s Series A and B rounds, said in a statement, “We are fully supportive of Blink Health and its actions.”

Hippo said in a statement emailed to Business Insider that Blink Health’s claims “a blatant attempt to interfere with fair competition by Hippo.”

Here’s how Blink Health’s prescription discounting

When it comes to lowering prescription costs, there are a number of different approaches startups are taking, from comparing the price at one pharmacy to another nearby so consumers shopping around for a lower price can get a sense of where they might go. Others have delivery components as well as discounts.

Blink Health operates a little differently. Instead of having people go from one pharmacy to another, Blink Health negotiates to get the same price at different pharmacies for generic medications and some branded diabetes medications. Blink Health works at Rite Aid, Walmart, Kroger and K-Mart, but it doesn’t currently work at Walgreens or CVS Health.

Say you need to pick up a prescription for your medication, but you have a high deductible plan that requires you to pay $3,000 out of your own pocket before your insurance starts picking up the rest of the tab. Instead of going to the pharmacy and accepting whatever price they offer (which can vary from pharmacy to pharmacy), you could download the Blink Health app, or go to the company’s website.

In the app, you can find your prescription and purchase it directly through the app. Then, when you get to the pharmacy counter, you show your phone to the pharmacist who rings it up instead. In return, Blink gets a cut of the transaction.

Where Hippo and Blink Health have similarities

The system of having the same price at any pharmacy and presenting a virtual card is the same model Hippo is using, according to its website.

For example, here’s how Blink Health describes the process:

Screen Shot 2018 03 14 at 9.17.31 AM

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Blink Health

And here’s how Hippo’s site describes it:

Screen Shot 2018 03 12 at 1.25.48 PM

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HelloHippo.com

Hippo was started by two former Blink Health executives: former chief financial officer Eugene Kakaulin and former general counsel Charles Jacoby. In 2016, Kakaulin sued Blink Health claiming breach of contract and violations of federal whistleblower law when Kakaulin came to the founders with information about securities violations. The case was later settled.

Blink Health’s complaint alleges that Hippo got confidential marketing plans, such as strategies and slogans, information about how Blink Health set up relationships and contracts with pharmacy benefit managers, as well as some of the back-end coding that helps fill the prescription when someone using the app/website uses their card, and that these are trade secrets belonging to Blink Health.

Here’s Hippo’s full statement:

“Blink Health’s claims are a blatant attempt to interfere with fair competition by Hippo. This new case follows on the heels of their lawsuit that was laughed out of New York State court last month. With the recent spate of lawsuits by and against Blink, their toxic corporate culture is now widely known, and this lawsuit is just another example of their questionable business practices. Hippo offered to retain an independent expert to verify that none of Blink’s non-existent trade secrets are being used in Hippo’s business. Blink declined. This says it all. Hippo is offering patients a better product with stronger industry partnerships, and Blink is now trying to accomplish through the courts what it knows it will not be able to achieve in the market. “

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