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The Truth About Sleeping Pills, Big Pharma's Goldmine

Many first heard of the uber sleeping pill, Ambien, in 2006 when former Rhode Island representative Patrick Kennedy drove to Capitol Hill under its influence to “vote” at 2:45 a.m., crashing his car. He had also been taking Phenergan, a gastroenteritis drug that can cause drowsiness, said published reports.


Soon Ambien-induced blackouts were so common, they captured the attention of public health agencies. The FDA issued warnings in 2007 about the potential of “complex sleep-related behaviors” with Ambien and 12 other sleeping pills that included “sleep-driving, making phone calls and preparing and eating food (while asleep).” Meanwhile, law enforcement officials reported traffic accidents increasing under Ambien's popularity with some drivers not even recognizing police officers there to arrest them. Dude! Help me get my car out of this ditch.

Then, horror stories began to circulate about blackout eating. Skinny dieters were waking up horrified amid mountains of pizza, Krispy Kreme donuts, and Häagen-Dazs cartons consumed by their evil twins when they took Ambien. Blackout eating became such a lifestyle problem--hours on the treadmill shot to hell--Sanofi-Aventis, Ambien’s manufacturer, was forced to publish full page newspaper ads telling people if they were going to take Ambien, to get in bed and stay there. No calling for pizza delivery either.

In 2009, Ambien was again in the news when Tiger Woods reportedly used it to spice up sex with his string of consorts which led to his separation from Elin Nordegren Woods.

And last summer, a generic version of Ambien was found in the bloodstream of Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and former wife of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo when she swerved into a tractor-trailer and kept driving. Witnesses said she was had been weaving for miles. Kennedy told police when she was stopped that she may have confused the Ambien with her daily thyroid med but at her court appearance she blamed a "partial seizure."

This week, the Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minn., is announcing it will no longer prescribe Ambien to inpatients because of its high correlation with falls. Data on more than 16,000 hospitalized patients found that the fall rate on Ambien was more than four times that of those not on the sleeping pill. Ambien was correlated with more falls than factors like age, mental impairment, delirium or insomnia, write authors in the Nov. 19 issue of the Journal of Hospital Medicine, reports Newsday.

And there are more negatives to Ambien than falls, car wrecks and sleep eating.The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders recently reported Ambien-associated homicides. "This Brief Report presents 2 cases in which concomitant zolpidem [Ambien] and paroxetine [Paxil] use was associated with uncharacteristic, complex acts of violence for which the individuals in question claimed total or partial amnesia. Neither individual had a history of aggressive behavior before killing his or her spouse; both most likely took more than 5 mg of zolpidem on the nights of their offenses."

Sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, and Rozerem have been a gold mine for Pharma because everyone sleeps--or watches TV when they can’t. Ads convey unrealistic expectations for fall-to-sleep time and the pills do not necessarily even work. In FDA documents, one sleeping pill, Rozerem, was no better than a placebo. Still, its sales shot up by 60 percent thanks to TV advertising, reported the New York Times.

Ads for Ambien in India, where it is sold under the name Zolfresh, actually claim the pill  makes people live longer, according to published reports.

To churn the sleeping pill market, Pharma has rolled out subcategories of insomnia like chronic, acute, transient, initial, delayed-onset, middle-of-the-night, early-morning and non-restful sleep. The stimulants Pharma markets for "wakefulness" problems also sell sleep meds--and vice verse. Who can sleep after being on stimulants all day? And who feels wide awake in the morning after sleeping meds to treat the wakefulness meds?

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