If you were a woman between the years of 15-25 and in the market for an oral contraceptive, you might very well ask your doctor for a product called “Yaz”, and you’d have plenty of company. The maker of Yaz, Bayer Health Care Pharmaceuticals, enjoys $1.8 billion in sales from the drug annually. No wonder. Females between 15 and 25 years of age have been targeted by Bayer’s formidable advertising campaign and promised much more than just a contraceptive. Yaz is Bayer’s “magic pill”. But the real question should be, “Magic for whom?”
The boys at Bayer may have perked your interest when you were watching “Grey’s Anatomy” or some other prime-time TV show and saw an ad for their contraceptive wonder drug. They claimed Yaz to be “Beyond Birth Control”. Yaz isn’t just about preventing pregnancy – it’s about your LIFESTYLE. You know those nasty pre-menstrual symptoms? Bloating. Fatigue. Muscle aches. Headaches. Increased appetite. Anxiety. Irritability. Moodiness? Step right up, ladies, and get your bottle of Yaz. Guaranteed to treat every pre-menstrual symptom you’ve got. And as a bonus your skin will clear up, too! After a sales pitch like that, who wouldn’t run to their OB/GYN and ask for a prescription? The trouble is that Yaz is no better at preventing symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) or curing acne than a sugar pill. And Bayer knows it.
In 2009 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the attorneys general of 27 states required Bayer to run new ads to correct their claims. “Regulators,” according to the New York Times, “say the ads overstated the drug’s ability to improve women’s moods and clear up acne, while playing down its potential health risks.” You can say that again. Side effects associated with Yaz include depression, migraines, breast lumps, high blood pressure and cholesterol, vaginal bleeding, hair loss, weight gain, cervical cancer, potentially life-threatening allergic reactions, liver damage, pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis and blood clots that cause strokes, vision problems and heart attacks. Experts say lawsuits for health-damaging side effects may well reach 25,000 or more before all is said and done. And that number doesn’t include the numbers of women afraid or reluctant to file a claim against Bayer.
Take the story of Carissa Ubersox. In 2007 she graduated with a degree in nursing and went to work in pediatrics. On Christmas Day of that year her boyfriend surprised her with a ring while she worked the day shift. Dreaming about the big day and wanting to look her best, Carissa switched to Yaz after watching a commercial that promised it would help with bloating and acne. “Yaz is the only birth control proven to treat the physical and emotional premenstrual symptoms that are severe enough to impact your life,” claimed the ad. Carissa was taken in. Three months later, in February of 2008, Carissa’s legs began to ache. She didn’t pay much attention at first, attributing the pain to working 12 hour shifts on her feet. Then one evening she found herself gasping for air. Blood clots in her legs had traveled to her lungs and caused a massive double pulmonary embolism. Her fiancé called 911 but on the way to the hospital her heart stopped. She was revived but slipped into a coma for two weeks. When she woke up she was blind.
“It sounds like a miracle drug,” Carissa remembers thinking after seeing the Yaz commercial. You might ask yourself how a medical professional like this got fooled. Nurses take courses in pharmacology and most are not like Joe Average who just wants his problem solved and asks his doc for the latest, greatest pill. Carissa undoubtedly knew that blood clot risks are associated with all oral contraceptives. The trouble is that Bayer went out and marketed this drug even though they knew the chances it would cause an embolism were higher than those other pills – 6.3 times higher, or in different terms, 630% higher. In 2009 a Dutch study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) said that the type of progestin used in Yaz, drospirenone, was associated with more blood clots than other forms of the hormone. Other research has shown that low-estrogen oral contraceptives made with a type of progestin called levonorgestrel carry the lowest risk of blood clots. There were already dozens of alternatives to Yaz on the market. Bayer didn’t need to create a new contraceptive at all so they made a pill and attributed great abilities to it – all to get a patent and profits. Lots and lots of profits. Three other studies besides the one in the BMJ showed similar kinds of increased risk with Yaz. That didn’t stop the FDA from saying Bayer could sell it anyway. Hundreds have now died or been incapacitated by strokes, embolisms and heart attacks after taking the drug. Yet the pharmaceutical industry in this country is such a force that the FDA is still holding meetings to decide whether or not to do anything about it. Yaz is still on the market and is America’s number one best selling contraceptive.
The real tragedy is that Bayer knew all this. There is new information coming out every day about how bad this product is. Bayer’s conduct is so rotten that in 2008 it was fined $97.5 million by the government for running a kick-back scheme with Liberty Medical Supply, promising to pay bonuses for every patient converted to Bayer diabetic supplies. The company then had to enter into a Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services. This agreement says Bayer can’t be trusted; it has pled to felonies and incurred incredible fines – up to $250 million. That’s what we do in America when a corporation causes harm because we can’t go the company and arrest someone. Corporations may legally be people, my friends, but they can’t be thrown in jail. As a result, when a company like Bayer wants to market a new drug they know is dangerous, they just run the numbers. They say, “Look, all we have to do is get the drug to market. Once we get FDA approval it’s going to be five or six years, no matter what kind of complaints come in. We’re going to get five or six years of sales out of this product.” At a rate of $1.8 billion in sales every year, even a $250 million dollar fine is chicken feed.
In the face of this story and dozens like it, whether from the pharmaceutical, coal, automobile or food industries, big business is constantly lobbying Congress for fewer regulations – and succeeding. We have a good ‘ol boy system, where if you go to work for the FDA, chances are you’ll go to work for Bayer. Or Pfizer. Or Abbott, Roche or GlaxoSmithKline. The people who have allowed this to happen are still allowing it to happen, even after all the body counts are in. The FDA simply says, “Well, we’re going to put a committee together who will decide how long this is going to go on.” That’s because companies like Bayer can make phone calls. Mike Papantonio, author and prominent tort litigator, refers to the phone calls as “Billy Bob calls”. “That’s where they call Billy Bob who works for the FDA,” says Papantonio, “and says you know – I don’t think these facts are right. I don’t think these statistics are right. I think this study is bad. Could you let us keep this product on the market? And by the way, Billy Bob, we may have a position for you when you leave the FDA.” Uh-huh. And Billy Bob’s $68,000 salary working for the government becomes a cool quarter million in the private sector.
No matter how egregious corporate behavior has become in America, there is still a lot of effort on the part of politicians to slash regulations and limit awards paid out in lawsuits. The law firm that defends Bayer will make millions but lawmakers would have their client say to the person who is killed or maimed that $150,000 or $200,000 in damages in enough. Not only are the politicians pushing it – many voters are buying it.
Well hey, you can’t blame them. Life is just great when there’s no one looking over your shoulder. That is, if you’re a sociopath.