Parent's Resource Center

To Drug or Not to Drug

Class-Action Lawsuit over Ritalin Brewing

Lindsey Townsend

Ritalin, the stimulant commonly used to treat ADHD in children, is becoming the focus of a major battle that may rival the tobacco wars before it's all over.

Lawsuits have now been filed in three states alleging that Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., the manufacturer of Ritalin, and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) have engaged in "fraud" and "conspiracy" to over-promote and expand the use of the stimulant medication Ritalin (methylphenidate).

A class-action suit seeking unspecified damages was filed on May 1 in Texas by the Dallas law firm of Waters and Kraus, followed by class-action suits filed in September in New Jersey and California. The allegations charge that Ciba/Novartis conspired to create, develop, and promote the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) in a highly successful effort to increase the market for Ritalin.

Attorneys at Waters and Kraus, who did not return phone calls to, have purchased and launched the domain name and hired Peter R. Breggin, M.D., a long-time critic of Ritalin and other medications, as a medical consultant for the case. The lawyers charge that Novartis has failed to adequately warn its users about the drug's potential impact on children's cardiovascular and nervous systems.

Ritalin is used by millions of school-aged children to control hyperactivity and combat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD). Diagnoses of AD/HD, along with prescriptions for Ritalin, have increased dramatically in the last decade. The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information estimates that between 2-3.5 million school-aged children have the disorder.

In response, Novartis and the APA have both issued statements denying the allegations and calling the lawsuit without merit. In a statement released by Novartis, the pharmaceutical company accuses the plaintiff's attorneys of "attempting to try the case in the media" and said that supporting educational programs and providing educational grants to industry organizations such as the APA is standard industry practice.

Meanwhile, the APA has called the accusations in the Texas suit "groundless" and "an opportunistic attack on the scientific process that underlies their efforts." Cecilia Oberjero, a spokesperson for the APA, said while they have been served papers on the Texas suit, they have not yet been officially served in the California and New Jersey suits. "We don't know what will happen next," she said.

A support organization, (CHADD), has also been named in the suits. CHADD has come under fire for accepting approximately $900,000 in financial donations and contributions from Ciba/Novartis and has been accused of attempting to eliminate laws and restrictions concerning the use of Ritalin in the U.S. The organization's official statement has called the lawsuits "baseless" and "ridiculous."

"We stand behind our position that these suits have no merit," said Russell Shipley, a spokesperson for CHADD. "Alleging that CHADD created AD/HD to help a pharmaceutical manufacturer reap profits is akin to accusing the American Diabetes Association of conspiring with the makers of insulin to invent diabetes," said Dr. Peter Jensen, a noted researcher at Columbia University and member of CHADD's Professional Advisory Board.

The dramatic increase in the number of prescriptions written for Ritalin in recent years, along with the rise in the number of diagnoses of AD/HD, has prompted much discussion among childcare experts over whether children are receiving too much medication and whether their behavioral disorders are being diagnosed correctly. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, physicians treating children and adolescents now write approximately six million prescriptions a year for stimulant medications such as Ritalin.

Opinions on whether the pending case has merit are sharply divided. Critics of the lawsuits, such as Bob Seay, health writer with , have called them frivolous and accused the attorneys and Dr. Breggin with being motivated solely by money, not concern for children. According to Seay, class action suits rarely benefit anyone other than the attorneys involved, and the chances that the victims will ever benefit from the suits is low.

Other health professionals such as Dr. Mary Ann Block, a long-time critic of Ritalin, support the class-action effort, saying that the media attention generated by the case can only help raise public awareness about the potential risks of the drug. "The publicity alone should get people thinking about Ritalin in a way they might not have thought it before," she said. "The conspiracy angle that they are proposing-that the psychiatrists made up this diagnosis so that the drug company could sell more product-in my mind is valid. The real criminals in this case are not the lawyers but the people who market this drug that is (potentially) harmful to children."

The lawsuits seek to halt what they call unlawful practices and ask that profits from sales of the drug be returned to consumers. They are expected to be particularly aggressive because several of the lawyers involved are veterans of the "Tobacco Wars," in which class-action lawsuits were filed and won against major cigarette companies for illnesses and deaths related to consumption of the companies' products.

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