Benzos: Is This the World's Deadliest Pill? - Page 3

By Christopher Byron 05/22/11

Some say it's not opiate painkillers like Oxy, Norco and Vicodin, but drugs like Ativan, Xanax and Klonopin. And doctors are doling it out like candy, causing a surge of hellish withdrawals, overdoses and deaths.

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Ativan Klonopin Xanax
Klonopin earns Big Pharma Over $1 Billion a Year Photo via

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Lorazepam: Brand name Ativan, this drug has figured in an array of well-publicized homicides and suicides by those using it. Ativan surfaced in the 2000 divorce case between Washington, D.C., socialite Patricia Duff and her husband, Wall Street billionaire Ronald Perelman. In deposition testimony, Perelman acknowledged taking Ativan as an anti-anxiety drug during his separation from Duff and the commencement of divorce proceedings. The period was marked by numerous outbursts by Perelman and at least two physical assaults on Duff. In 2008, news reports revealed that Ativan was being used by the U.S. Customs Service to keep suspected terrorists sedated while deporting them to detention facilities abroad.

You can buy any of these "feel-good" drugs without a doctor's signature by simply typing the name into any Internet search engine. Instantly, you’ll be presented with dozens of websites, both foreign and domestic, where you can make your purchase, no prescription required. (Most of the websites accept all major credit cards.)

Why has all this happened? In large measure you can thank the 47,000 members of the American psychiatric profession for this dreadful state of affairs. Neither the pharmaceutical industry nor the psychiatric profession would be anywhere near as lucrative as they are today without their mutual support system. Together they have created a marketing juggernaut that over the last 20 years has spawned a seemingly nonstop gusher of profits that is only now beginning to slow—and probably only temporarily.

The scholarly journals of the psychiatric profession were filled with early warnings, beginning almost 50 years ago, from those who could see where the encroaching influence of the drug companies was destined to lead the profession. Now, even the medical journals themselves have been corrupted by the hidden hand of Big Pharma. In 2008, the New York Times reported that a survey of the six top medical journals showed that on average almost 8% of the bylined articles published in their pages were ghostwritten by freelance writers, then published under the names of cooperating doctors and researchers to give the pro-drug messages contained in the articles the appearance of impartiality. The scheme is bankrolled, of course, by the company that makes the drug.

Consider Dr. Joseph Biederman, the world-renowned Harvard University psychiatrist and father of modern psychopharmacology for children, who, it now turns out, has been taking secret “consulting fees” from drug companies for years. Biederman is widely credited with legitimizing the concept of “bipolar disorder” as a chemical imbalance in the brain that can be corrected with psychiatric drugs. But documents uncovered by Senate investigators probing ties between the psychiatric profession and the drug industry, which have resulted in an explosion in medically approved uses for psychiatric drugs for children, show that Biederman received more than $1.6 million in undisclosed payments since 2000 from the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the drugs he was encouraging parents to give to their children if they appeared to be “bipolar.”

No surveys that I am aware of have ever been conducted regarding the public’s impression of what psychiatrists actually do. But from pop culture media characters such as the fictional female psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi in the HBO series The Sopranos, the general belief seems to be that psychiatrists are learned and humane professionals who counsel their patients through hour-long “talk therapy” sessions in their offices once a week, and more frequently than that if necessary to help them resolve their conflicts.

In fact, many do nothing of the sort. It may be only a patient’s first session with a psychiatrist that lasts any meaningful amount of time. In this initial consultation the psychiatrist relies on the DSM manual as the diagnostic tool to decide precisely what the patient suffers from. Once that is established, the psychiatrist can begin prescribing psych meds as therapy, free of fear about the danger of a medical malpractice suit lurking down the road.

The follow-up sessions (weekly, monthly, etc.) that come after the initial consultations—that is, the sessions that are portrayed on The Sopranos as the occasions when Mafia killer Tony Soprano sits down in Dr. Melfi’s darkened office and pours out his guts about his troubled childhood—usually last as little as 15 minutes. During these so-called “med checks,” a psychiatrist typically charges $100 or more for asking the patient little more than how he or she is responding to the prescribed medication—a question that can usually be answered by a quick glance at the patient’s demeanor.

At the end of such a med-check, the psychiatrist may decide to renew the patient’s current prescription, substitute or add a new one—or even offer the patient a free sample of some new psych-med, courtesy of a sales rep from a pharmaceutical company. At four med-checks per hour, a psychiatrist with enough patients to fill up his workdays can easily make $120,000 annually from his med-check practice alone and still take a month-long summer vacation.

It's obvious that this system incentivizes doctors financially to keep prescribing drugs in order to keep patients returning for med-checks. But Big Pharma offers a whole host of additional income opportunities. Last year, ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize–winning public-interest investigative website, did an extensive report on the financial compensation drug companies shower on physicians. Well-titled “Dollars for Docs,” this series included a database of more than 17,000 doctors who accepted “speaker fees” and other money from eight drug companies in 2009 and 2010 totaling $320 million.

That accounting is only the tip of the iceberg, however, as most pharmaceutical companies have refused to disclose their physician payments. Not surprisingly, most doctors interviewed by ProPublica denied that their medical decisions and prescribing habits were influenced by drug company payments. The new healthcare reform bill calls for greater transparency, requiring all drug-makers to disclose all fees paid to all doctors by 2014. Until then, you can type your doctor’s name into the database to find out if he or she is on the pharma take, and for how much.

Christopher Byron is a prize-winning investigative journalist and New York Times best-selling author. His columns and articles have appeared in a dozens of major publications, including New York Magazine, Fortune, The New York Times and The New York Post. He has also been a regular guest commentator on CNN. Fox, and CNBC. This article is exclusively excerpted from his forthcoming book,  Mind Drugs, Inc.: How Big Pharma and Modern Psychiatry Have Corrupted Washington and Destroyed Mental Health in America.

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