Are We Big Pharma’s Guinea Pigs? 8 Drugs Used by Millions Before Being Pulled for Dangerous Side-Effects

Big Pharma hopes we’ll forget about these drugs.

Martha Rosenberg

Blockbuster drugs like Viagra, Lipitor, Prozac and Nexium have made Big Pharma one of the nation’s top industries. Even before direct-to-consumer advertising on TV, there were blockbuster drugs like Ritalin, Valium, Tagamet and Premarin. To be a blockbuster a drug has to 1) be usable by almost everyone; 2) be used every day; 3) be used indefinitely; 4) solve an everyday health problem like heartburn or high cholesterol; 5) have a fun or memorable ad campaign; 6) get social buzz; and 7) be sold to a large number of people quickly.

The last qualification–quick sales to millions–is crucial because Big Pharma has a small sales window before a patent runs out. But it’s also dangerous because many risks don’t emerge until millions take the drug so the public serves as unwitting guinea pigs. In fact, the “early user/guinea pig” factor is what sunk Vioxx 10 years ago.

Because of patent pressure, minor drug risks are often only admitted when the patent runs out, a ruse AlterNet has written about. But when risks can’t be ignored, even if the drug is selling briskly, the drug will be unceremoniously withdrawn and seldom mentioned again. Here are some blockbusters in the drug graveyard that Big Pharma hopes we will forget about.

1. Darvon and Darvocet

Is an opioid-linked medication that relieves pain worth the overdoses, death, addiction and abuse that are often in its wake? It is a question we hear today with drugs like OxyContin, but dates all the way back to 1957 when Eli Lilly began marketing Darvon.

Darvon and Darvocet (Darvon with acetaminophen, approved in 1972) were synthetic weak opioids that found themselves under safety clouds almost from the beginning. In 1978, Public Citizen called for their ban or severe restriction due to heart toxicity and deaths. Instead of banning or restricting Darvon, the government allowed Lilly to run an “educational program” about the risks. How did it work out? Lilly “converted its education program into a marketing initiative,” said the Department of Health Education and Welfare. No kidding! In 2004, Darvon was still the 12th highest selling generic in the U.S. with 23 million prescriptions filled.

In 2006, Public Citizen again called for a ban saying that Darvon had been linked to 10,000 confirmed U.S. deaths since its introduction and that coroners “note its presence in more deaths each year than most other prescription drugs.” Why is Darvon so lethal? A dose and overdose are very close in strength, it is extremely toxic when mixed with alcohol, it eliminates slowly from the body and it appears to be impervious to naloxone, the drug carried by beat cops and paramedics to treat/reverse heroin overdoses.

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