What would you think about a man who was worth almost eight billion dollars repeatedly denying that his company's weight-loss drug caused heart damage? Fenfluramine was withdrawn from the U.S. market in 1997, but the French parent company, Laboratories Servier, continued to market its similar product under another brand name until 2009. The company's founder was repeatedly accused of hiding data that his drugs caused heart valve damage and pulmonary hypertension, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 2000 people. In spite of his many accomplishments, the shadow of this scandal followed him until he died at age 92.
Life of an Entrepreneur
Jacques Servier was born on Feb. 9, 1922 in central France, to a mother who was a schoolteacher and a father who was a pharmacist. He received his MD in 1947 and a pharmacy degree in 1950, both from Paris University. In 1957, he received a PhD In pharmacy from Lille University.
In 1954, he took over a small drug company that had nine employees. He built the company into Les Laboratories Servier, the second largest pharmaceutical company in France, with yearly sales over $5.8 billion and 21,400 employees in 146 countries.
Fenfluramine and Mediator
In 1973, Laboratories Servier introduced fenfluramine to treat diabetes, but it was marketed among doctors for the much more popular use of helping people to lose weight. In the United States alone, fenfluramine was prescribed to millions of people for weight loss, often combined with other drugs, phentermine or phendimetrazine. The combination was popularly known as fen-phen and was wildly successful. In 1997, a Mayo Clinic researcher found a link between fenfluramine and heart valve damage, scarring of the heart muscle and pulmonary high blood pressure that could cause sudden death. On September 15, 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered fenfluramine to be withdrawn from the market. Wyeth, the American company that sold fenfluramine, set aside more than $21 billion for personal-injury claims against the drug.
Dr. Servier's company had also developed Mediator (benfluorex), a chemical similar in structure and side effects to fenfluramine, and sold it for 33 years to five million French patients. They continued to market this drug in France long after fenfluramine was withdrawn in the U.S. French government investigators accused Servier of licensing Mediator as a diabetes drug to avoid scrutiny, while urging doctors to prescribe the pills as a diet aid to bolster sales. U.S. companies are quick to remove harmful drugs from the market because of the high cost of class-action lawsuits, but the French do not have this legal option, so Mediator remained on the market there until it was finally withdrawn in 2009.
That same year, while many court cases against his drugs were still going on, he was awarded France's national medal, the Legion d'Honneur's Grand Cross, by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy was Servier's lawyer before he became President of France.
In January 2011, the Interministerial Commission charged Servier's companies with deceiving health authorities about the terrible side effects of Mediator and continuing to sell the drug to the public. In 2012, a French court indicted him and his six companies for manslaughter and personal injury charges related to his diabetes drug. His companies repeatedly denied reports of harm, claiming it had heard only of a few cases of death in people taking his drugs, but they have lost several lawsuits and had to pay compensation for the deaths.
Servier died in 2014 at age 92, with no reported cause, but with the scandal over hiding information about the side effects of Mediator still hanging over his head. This story is the perfect example to support the widespread belief that "Big Pharma" puts profits before patient welfare.
Lessons from Servier's Story
• If you do not have a life-threatening disease, don't pressure your doctor to prescribe the latest drug that has hit the market. It can take years for serious side effects to be discovered and many more years for them to be reported to the public.
• If you have a condition that has been caused by or made worse by your lifestyle, do not expect your doctor to cure you with drugs. Whatever your doctor may prescribe, take charge of your own lifestyle changes. For example, Type II diabetes, which will affect 40 percent of North Americans, can be controlled with drugs but can be cured only with lifestyle changes. Heart disease is often also mostly a lifestyle disease. Both diabetes and many types of heart disease can often be controlled by losing weight, exercising, not smoking or drinking alcohol, eating lots of fruits and vegetables and restricting red meat, processed meat, sugar-added foods, sugared drinks and fried foods. For many people, lifestyle changes can control high blood pressure or high cholesterol, two of the major risk factors for heart disease, just as effectively as any of the drugs on the market.
• When you do receive a prescription for a drug, ask your doctor or pharmacist about possible side effects. Also make sure that your doctors are aware of any other drugs or over-the-counter medications that you are taking.
Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities.