DENVER — Imagine a prescription drug that makes you gamble, have sex, overeat or go binge shopping.
Abilify has been blamed for all of it. It’s one of the most profitable drugs in America. It’s why some patients think the maker and the Food and Drug Administration were too slow to warn of potential side effects.
Abilify is an anti-psychotic drug meant to help with depression and bipolar disorder. But hundreds of lawsuits nationwide blame the drug for causing compulsive behavior, especially gambling.
“Eventually, I was asked to leave my parents’ house because I couldn’t stop gambling,” said a former Abilify patient who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The mother of two said she lost custody of her kids and possession of her house to a gambling habit she said began in 2008 after she was prescribed Abilify for depression.
The woman had been living in Las Vegas since 1999 but said she had never been tempted to gamble until she started taking the drug. She told the FOX31 Problem Solvers she once missed two flights while gambling at the Las Vegas airport.
“I had to reschedule the first flight I missed and then I went back to the machine waiting for the second flight and I ended up missing that as well,” said the woman, who estimated her gambling habit cost her between $1 million and $2 million in less than five years.
“Individuals have uncontrollable urges,” said the woman’s attorney Mike McDivitt.
He represents nearly 200 clients who feel the makers of Abilify, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, failed to warn about the medication’s impulsive side effects.
“If you don’t put a warning label, the doctors are more inclined to prescribe it,” McDivitt said.
He believes Abilify acts on the brain’s dopamine receptors, which crave pleasure. That can mean gambling, shopping, overeating and hyper-sexuality.
“I gained about 70 pounds and then lost it subsequently after stopping Abilify,” said the female patient, who added she even engaged in prostitution. “Something I’m ashamed of and embarrassed by.”
The former patient said she only got better after moving to Colorado in 2012 where her new doctor wouldn’t prescribe Abilify. But it took until 2016 for the woman to make the connection that Abilify could have been the cause of her past problems.
In May 2016, the FDA issued a safety announcement, “warning that compulsive or uncontrollable urges to gamble, binge eat, shop, and have sex have been reported with the use of the antipsychotic drug aripiprazole (Abilify, Abilify Maintena, Aristada, and generics). These uncontrollable urges were reported to have stopped when the medicine was discontinued or the dose was reduced.”
“If it ruins your life. That’s a pretty bad side effect,” said Gary Wilson, a Minneapolis-based attorney who has Abilify clients nationwide, including Colorado.
Wilson points out Europe issued compulsive behavior warnings about Abilify in 2012.
“That is the tragedy here. The American patients did not learn about the connection between gambling and compulsivity until almost four years after the European patients did.”
University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy professor Robert Valuck said people should not assume warning labels automatically mean Abilify is to blame or that the FDA has been dragging its feet.
“The science isn’t crystal clear on what`s going on,” Valuck said. “The FDA is in a tough spot. If they warn too early and it really isn’t true, then they’re scaring people away from treatment who could benefit from treatment.”
Valuck said medication guides and drug labels mandated in 2016 now allow patients to decide for themselves if the risk is worth it.
But former patients said the makers of Abilify should’ve put out a warning years ago, long before she gambled her life away.
“It’s not the money for me. It’s the time that I lost with my children, it’s the time that I lost with my parents, it’s the time that I devalued myself and lost my soul,” the woman said.
The FDA said in 2015, 1.6 million Americans used Abilify or a related aripiprazole drug.
Bristol-Myers Squibb in the U.S. and Otsuka Pharmaceuticals in Japan said they have no comment on the reported side effects of the drug.
But they might have to answer to a jury in the Northern District of Florida where most of the lawsuits are being consolidated.