A New York City federal judge ordered drug company Eli Lilly to unseal confidential documents concerning the popular antipsychotic drug Zyprexa (Olanzapine) this past Friday, after a lengthy legal dispute. Yesterday’s New York Times reports:
The decision by Judge Jack B. Weinstein of Federal District Court came as part of a ruling that gave class-action status to a case brought by insurance companies, pension funds and unions that want Lilly to repay them billions of dollars they spent on the drug. They contend that Lilly hid the side effects of the drug and marketed it for unapproved uses.
The confidential documents were produced by Lilly in response to a related lawsuit filed by patients who said that Zyprexa had caused excessive weight gain and diabetes. The papers were placed under a protective court order soon after the suit was filed in 2004.
“Lilly’s legitimate interest in confidentiality does not outweigh the public interest in disclosure at this stage,” Judge Weinstein wrote.
The article goes on to mention that some of the confidential papers were provided in December 2006 to Times reporter Alex Berenson, who used them to write “Eli Lily Said to Play Down Risk of Top Pill”:
The drug maker Eli Lilly has engaged in a decade-long effort to play down the health risks of Zyprexa, its best-selling medication for schizophrenia, according to hundreds of internal Lilly documents and e-mail messages among top company managers.
The documents, given to The Times by a lawyer representing mentally ill patients, show that Lilly executives kept important information from doctors about Zyprexa’s links to obesity and its tendency to raise blood sugar — both known risk factors for diabetes.
Lilly’s own published data, which it told its sales representatives to play down in conversations with doctors, has shown that 30 percent of patients taking Zyprexa gain 22 pounds or more after a year on the drug, and some patients have reported gaining 100 pounds or more. But Lilly was concerned that Zyprexa’s sales would be hurt if the company was more forthright about the fact that the drug might cause unmanageable weight gain or diabetes, according to the documents, which cover the period 1995 to 2004.
Zyprexa has become by far Lilly’s best-selling product, with sales of $4.2 billion last year, when about two million people worldwide took the drug.
Also, months before that article went to press, the FDA was already warning people about Zyprexa’s numerous side effects on its Patient Information Sheet for the drug.
According to yesterday’s Times article, Eli Lilly “denied having withheld [the information used in Berenson’s 2006 article]” and accused Berenson of “cherry-picking” documents to get his argument across.
To me, this whole situation is a textbook example of something that’s all too easy to forget: drug companies are just that, companies, meaning their success depends on making a profit. While we all like to think that people’s health and well-being drive the business decisions of these organizations, that may or may not always be the case.
So, whether you’re on Zyprexa or not, take the time to educate yourself about all of the substances you’re putting into your body. What are the potential side effects? Does there appear to be any controversy over the safety of the substance? What does your health care professional think? Who did the research trials on this drug, and where did they get their research money?
Resources: Zyprexa Safety Information from Eli Lilly