Five companies that help prevent suicide


We in the financial media often write about companies that are involved in serious matters, both good and bad, and we often do so with a lightheartedness that suggests we are dispassionate or detached from such matters. This is understandable, since we are expected to provide unbiased forecasts of the performance of companies and stocks. We are allowed to hold and even communicate moral opinions, if we wish, but we must keep them very clearly distinct from our analyses. We cannot allow ourselves the indulgence of feeling first and thinking second.

Since I must maintain a degree of emotional remove from my subjects, it makes sense to adopt a tone of lightheartedness. So I often do, and so I shall today, even as I discuss companies doing their part to ensure that we continue to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune until the hour of our naturally appointed end. The lighthearted writer’s response to absurdity, of course, is to provide mockery, thereby steering readers in another direction, and as suicide is a more a tragic absurdity than most, there is every reason to apply mockery wherever, to whomever, and to whatever degree it has been earned.

But before I go begin, let me attempt to dissuade you from reading further if you are seriously depressed today. If you are clinically depressed or just, for whatever reason, seriously unhappy with the state of the world, you’ll find no solutions here, just a few stock picks. Call this number, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, instead: 1-800-273-8255.

Remember to treat these investment ideas as just that, ideas, and do your own research before making any investment decision.

Google (GOOGL)

Have you ever done an image search on the word “idiot” or “loser” just to see who’s face popped up? Have you ever done this with a more offensive term? Have you ever done it with a much more offensive term? Have you ever wondered why Google doesn’t get sued by everyone who’s face does pop up? The answer has always been that whatever pops up, Google didn’t put it there and isn’t responsible for it. They merely created an algorithm that could search the internet and allowed you the free use of it. However offensive the resulting content of a search, the responsibility lies with the searcher or the content provider, not with Google. It’s a logical argument, and it has been keeping Google safe from the hyper-litigious, lo these many years. (At least in America. In Europe—less so.)

Clearly, Google wants nothing to do with making any decisions about what will appear in your search results, as once it begins to make such decisions, its argument becomes much weaker. Nevertheless, Google has made at least two such decisions. The first seemed pure common sense: they put the number for poison control at the top of the page in the search results for “poison control,” on the presumption that that’s what many people who do such a search will be looking for.

And having gone as far as that, they went one step further, putting the number of National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (again, 1-800-273-8255) at the top of the page when someone searches things like “ways to commit suicide” or “how can I quickly kill myself.” In this case, Google knows that the number isn’t what people of looking for, they just chose to put it there anyway, on the presumption that it might save someone’s life.

If Google had done nothing, it would have avoided the possibility of weakening its standard disclaimer while adhering to its famous, now scrapped, corporate motto: Don’t be evil. Instead, they took an action more in keeping with their current, better corporate motto: Do the right thing.


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Apple (AAPL)

Apple apparently has a culture of suicide prevention, or at least it would seem so from the company’s response to widespread reports, going back to 2010, of a supposedly high suicide rate at the Shenzhen, China factory of Foxconn, a key supplier of Apple hardware. Workers at the plant were variously reported to work 80 hours or more of overtime each month, sometimes to work twenty-four hour shifts, and to be made to stand for their entire shifts. A 2012 episode of Nightline debunked some of these extreme claims, but did confirm the existence of netting, all around the building, put in place to make it impossible for employees to kill themselves by jumping from the roof, erected after a three-month period in 2010 in which nine Foxconn workers did just that.

Although Foxconn was merely an Apple supplier, Apple became the company most often associated with the suicides. The company responded by sending its number two man at the time, Tim Cook, to China to see what could be done. In addition to the nets, Cook’s visit brought about a small pay raise for workers, and on-site counseling.

Problems persist, as do Apple’s efforts. As of January 1 of this year, Apple has put into effect its strictest ever Supplier Code of Conduct to try to improve the working conditions of all those who work in its supply chain. You can read the code here.


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Pharmaceutical Treatments

At present, there is no medication approved for the treatment of suicidal ideation, but since suicidal ideation often comes with depression, and there are medications for the treatment of depression, one could easily assume that such medications would lower the risk of suicide.

There, however, one would be mistaken.

It has been rumored since the early 1990s that antidepressants raised, not lowered, suicide risk, but the companies involved, awash in profits, were cruelly slow to acknowledge this. After determining from its own meta-studies that SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) doubled the risk of suicidal ideation in persons under 24, the FDA finally added a black box warning to these medications in 2004, though in 2007, the industry saw to it that the warning was watered down with equivocating language.

In 2016, the largest ever study into the antidepressant-suicide link was published in the British Journal of Medicine. It confirmed that studies prove that these medications double the risk of suicidal ideation in those under 24, but its far more troubling finding is that suicidal thoughts in these trials appear to have been under-reported, suggesting that the risk may be present in adults, and the risk in children may be worse than a mere doubling. You can read the study here.

By the way, one company in particular, Eli Lilly (LLY), was singled out in the study has having made insufficient trial data available online. Another truth many big companies have a hard time grasping is that analysts, traders, fund managers—the whole Street, really—see it as a sign of weakness, not strength, when they act as if they have something to hide.

I would like to identify pharmaceutical companies that help prevent suicide, but in light of this rather damning evidence, I cannot possibly conclude that companies making SSRIs are doing anything to help prevent suicide—quite the contrary. Fortunately, there are medications that do seem to help, and at least one very promising new one on the way. And the companies that make these drugs are…

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)

Of Glaxo’s depression medication, Wellbutrin, it may be said that with regard to suicide risk, the drug at least does no harm. Wellbutrin carries the black box warning, as do other anti-depressants, but the data with regard to Wellbutrin, which uses a different mechanism than SSRIs, has never been as clear, and the most recent study, a study the FDA had a hand in creating, found no increased risk of suicide for Bupropion, the generic name for both Wellbutrin, marketed as an antidepressant, and Zyban, marketed as a smoking cessation aid.

In December, the FDA decided to remove the black box warning on Zyban—you can read their decision here. What the FDA did not do is remove the “class” black box warning—the one that covers all antidepressants—from the label of Zyban or Wellbutrin.

It is logical that results regarding Wellbutrin specifically would override results that merely cover anti-depressants as a class, especially given that chemically, Wellbutrin is not even in the same class as other antidepressants, but the FDA doesn’t see it that way. Most likely, they feel they are not in a position act on “logic,” but if the FDA won’t consider these things logically, who will?

The agency was too slow to act, and regarding bupropion, is failing, ludicrously, to counter-act.


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Reckitt Benckiser (RB.L)

Let me get this out of the way: you can’t invest in Reckitt Benckiser unless you have access to the London Exchange, as few American investors do. That said, the $48 billion company has a drug, buprenorphine, already approved for the treatment of opioid addiction, now in clinical trials to be used as the first ever specifically anti-suicide drug. Buprenorphine has the extraordinary property of being an opioid agonist up to a certain point, but an opioid antagonist beyond that point, so it is uniquely suited for treating addiction. This same property also means that it is unlikely to be habit forming in those who might take it, in the future, to ward off suicidal thoughts.

If you are interested, keep your eye on Reckitt Benckiser and buprenorphine. Nothing is more common, especially in recent months, than pharmaceutical buyouts, shakeups, drug swaps, and drug partnerships.


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Julian Close

Julian Close

Julian Close became a stockbroker in 1995. In his 20 years of market experience, he has seen all market conditions and written about every aspect of investing. Julian has also written extensively on corporate best practices and even written reports for the United Nations. He graduated from Davidson College in 1993 and received a Master of Arts in Teaching from Mary Baldwin College in 2011. You can see closing trades for all Julian's long and short positions and track his long term performance via twitter: @JulianClose_MIC.

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