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Yaz and Yasmin Birth Control Pills May Have Killed 23 Canadians

I spoke to the lawyer in charge of the class action lawsuit against Bayer Pharmaceuticals.

by Stephanie Mercier Voyer
13 June 2013, 8:00am


Yasmin birth control pills. via.

I’ve been on birth control for about a decade now, and when I heard that 23 women are suspected to have died from using Yasmin and Yaz pills, I was shocked.

Health Canada documents revealed doctors and pharmacists believe most of the women suffered from blood clots caused by the use of the pills manufactured by Bayer Pharmaceuticals. One of the victims, B.C. resident Miranda Scott, had been using Yasmin for only five weeks before she collapsed and died.

The controversy around Yasmin and Yaz is nothing new, with Bayer having already paid over $1 billion in lawsuit settlements in the U.S. In 2011, Health Canada also issued a warning saying that the risks of developing blood clots were 1.5 to 3 times higher with Yasmin and Yaz than with other birth control pills.

Now, Ontario lawyer Matthew Baer has decided to represent hundreds of Ontario women in a class-action lawsuit again Bayer pharmaceuticals, alleging that Yasmin and Yaz have increased risks of harmful side-effects.

I called up Matthew to talk about the side effects of Yaz and Yazmin, how potentially harmful drugs make it onto the Canadian market, and why they’re still getting prescribed to young women across the country.

VICE: How did you get involved with the case?
Matthew:
After a whole bunch of people called saying that they’ve been injured by Yasmin and Yaz, we looked into it further and saw that there were real issues in the science and we started a case.

What are the main problems caused by Yaz and Yasmin?
The issue with Yasmin and Yaz, is that because they contain a chemical called drospirenone, there’s been increased risks for these side effects. The warning, until recently, didn’t make mention of any of those increased risks. Now, everybody knows that drospirenonecauses these side effects.

How did Bayer not find out about the risks beforehand? Don’t they do tests?
They would’ve known that it would cause problems, but they wouldn’t have known it was at a greater rate than the other ones. Often times you don’t find out until the drug is on the market and is distributed to a broader population. They still deny that it’s at a greater rate.

With all this evidence of problems, why are doctors still prescribing it?
Some doctors have changed their prescribing habits, some haven’t. They have to go by what information is out there and Bayer is continuing to say that there is no increased risk. I think they have a hard time trying to figure out who to believe. There’s a lot of studies saying there’s increased risks, but other than the media putting that information out there, I don’t know how people are going to find out about it.

Is there any possibility that Yasmin and Yaz could be banned by Health Canada?
It’s possible, but I don’t think so. They haven’t shown any indication of wanting to do that. Health Canada just did a safety review and they put out a warning that the risks [of blood clots] are 1.5 to 3 times higher than with other ones.

Who’s benefiting from having Yasmin and Yaz on the market?
There’s a lot of competition out there for the birth control market. The more each of the Bayer company can sell their product, the better for them.

What are you trying to accomplish with the class-action lawsuit?
There’s two main things that we are trying to accomplish.  One, we are trying to get compensation for those who have been injured. Second, just as important if not more, we want to make sure that there’s a proper warning so that women and their doctors know the true risks and can make an informed decision whether they want to use this product or a different one.

For a different look at the problems within the pharmaceutical industry that cause epidemics like this to occur, I called up Dr. Elliot Jacobson from the Montreal Centre for Integrative Medicine. We chatted about the bigger problems within the health community that can lead to such massive complications.

VICE: How can this happen? How can something like this result in 23 deaths and other major problems?
Elliot:
The pharmaceutical companies do testings on small amounts of people. When you’re only testing on 100-200 people, if you’re looking for rare complications, you’re not going to find many. But then, you get 600,000 people and even if 0.01 per cent of those people have side effects, well that’s still 60 people, a significant number.

What’s the process behind drug approval?
New drugs have to go through different trials. In terms of oral contraceptives, newer contraceptives get approved based on studies of older oral contraceptives, even if they don't have the same type of progestin in it. Health Canada bases a lot of its decisions on studies that are generally done through the FDA. There was an interesting article that I read, specifically on Yasmin and those 4th generation contraceptive, that when they got approved, that those people [FDA advisors] had ties to the drug companies. It’s a really murky industry.

Yeah, apparently last year it was discovered that 4 of the 26 FDA drug approval advisors had financial links to Bayer. Is there a way to stop things like this from happening?

There’s no easy way, I don’t think. There have been rules put in place. In the past, drug companies were allowed to do a lot of things they’re not allowed to do now: give gifts and trips to doctors who are in charge of prescribing the drugs. But that kind of stuff has now been made illegal. When you go to a conference now, people have to disclose whether they receive an honorarium from a drug company. A lot of it is trying to teach medical students and doctors how to appraise the studies that they’re reading and how to decide how to make that decision of whether or not they feel that this is unbiased information. It’s pretty insidious and it’s not always clear-cut, but I think that this relationship eventually has to change if you really want to get big pharma out of the medical field. It’s going to take generations and I think it will also take public pressure.

Do you think the government should somehow get involved to protect the public?
The government recognises that a lot of medication has the potential to do harm. You know you’re taking a chance with any drug that has side effects. Same thing goes for birth control, you’re taking a medication for a purpose, and ideally the person that is prescribing that medication to you should be warning you about the possible risks and side effects. The government, rightly or wrongly, has decided to say that they give people warnings that these are the possible risks and that people have to make those decisions for themselves.

Would doctors who know about these side effects still prescribe Yasmin and Yaz?
They tend to downplay the negative side effects. Most doctors hopefully are paying attention to what’s going on. And certainly negative news like this generally will get most people to say “I’m gonna stay away from this for a while, until I can find more about it.”

How do you explain that Yasmin and Yaz are still on the market?
I think it has to do with the process of how a drug gets on the market and how a drug gets pulled. The government has to prove without a doubt that the risks outweigh the possible benefits. If they pull a drug off the market and the drug companies decide that they did it without enough evidence, they can sue the government.

Do you think a possible class-action lawsuit would have an impact?
I think it depends whether or not the lawsuit is fought or if they just settle. I think Health Canada needs to listen to the public, but they also need to look at the facts.

Who benefits from having a potentially harmful drug on the market?
The question is: are there people benefiting from that drug? Are the majority of people benefitting without having any side effects? There are other things on the market that would do the job, but they all have a certain risk. This is one example of a much bigger issue.

What’s the bigger issue?
In my eyes, the bigger issue is the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and health care. The government spends tons of money in funding drugs. We are spending billions of healthcare dollars to fund pharmaceutical companies that are marketing drugs, marketing a product. There are always new drugs coming out on the market because the old drugs come off patent, become generic, and are no longer profitable. A lot of these drugs are not better and sometimes more dangerous than the drugs that they replace. They’re way more profitable. More profit for the drug companies means higher costs for the government. We are talking about public dollars. Where should the money be going? We are not putting money into prevention and talking to people about diet, exercise and stress. We are putting money into treating people. We don’t spend much money at all promoting health. I think that’s the bigger question.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @smvoyer