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Lawyers Allege Maker of Ritalin, Psychiatric Group 'Created' Disease

Sept 14, 2000
page B19
The lawyers who brought you suits over tobacco, guns and health-maintenance organizations have a new target: Ritalin. Wednesday, plaintiffs' lawyers filed two suits, alleging that the maker of Ritalin, the commonly prescribed attention-deficit treatment, conspired with a psychiatric group to "create" a disease, and later hyped the drug's benefits. The cases, filed in California and New Jersey, seek billions of dollars in damages, and are likely to be followed by suits on behalf of consumers in other states, the lawyers said. The legal action tracks a growing public debate over Ritalin. Most psychologists and psychiatrists believe that, at least in short-term use, the drug is safe and effective in treating so-called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. But a vocal minority claims that ADHD has been over-diagnosed, and that Ritalin has been over-prescribed, including among many preschool children. Critics also say the long-term side-effects of Ritalin haven't been adequately studied. This spring, the issue drew the attention of the White House, which ordered up a study of ADHD drugs prescribed for very young children. Ritalin has been distributed in the U.S. since the 1950s, originally by Ciba-Geigy Corp., which became part of Swiss-based Novartis AG, following a 1997 merger. Officials at Novartis, and another defendant, the American Psychiatric Association, said they hadn't seen the suits, although they had strongly denied any wrongdoing in connection with a similar suit over Ritalin filed earlier this year in Texas. "Ritalin has been used safely and effectively in the treatment of millions of ADHD patients for over 40 years, and is the most studied drug prescribed for the disorder," Novartis said, in a statement responding to the Texas suit. The American Psychiatric Association, in its own earlier statement on the Texas case, said the allegation that it had conspired with Novartis to create the ADHD diagnosis was "ludicrous and totally false," and said there existed "a mountain of scientific evidence to refute these meritless allegations." In the latest suits, the lawyers are led by Pascagoula, Miss., plaintiffs' attorney Richard Scruggs, famed for helping negotiate the landmark settlements between state attorneys general and the tobacco industry in 1998, while earning his law firm an estimated \$1 billion fee. Other lawyers involved include members of the "Castano" group, a network of plaintiffs' lawyers that filed suits against the tobacco industry on behalf of smokers. Since the tobacco suits, some of the lawyers have launched cases against gun manufacturers, health-maintenance organizations and drug companies, including the manufacturers of the fen-phen diet cocktail. In Ritalin's case, they are also joining forces with lawyers in the previously filed Texas suit. The Ritalin defendants "manufactured a disease," asserts Mr. Scruggs. "It has been grossly over-prescribed. It is a huge risk." Class-Action Status Sought The lawsuits, which seek class-action status, contend that Novartis and Ciba-Geigy, along with the psychiatric association, conspired to create a broad-based definition of hyperactivity disorders in the standard medical text used by doctors; that, the suits say, has had the effect of boosting sales and profits. Subsequently, Novartis and Ciba-Geigy employed false and misleading advertising, which played down the drugs' side-effects, and oversold the benefits, the suits allege. The suits also name Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or Chadd, a Landover, Md., nonprofit support group, which has received financial backing from Novartis, according to the suit. Chadd officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment. Donald Hildre, a San Diego lawyer, said the suit in California was filed under a provision of the state's business and professions code, which provides for forfeiture of profits and huge fines, in instances where companies are found to have misled the public. He added that the same law was invoked in state litigation against tobacco companies. The lead plaintiff in his suit, filed in San Diego federal court, is the son of a secretary at his law firm, who took Ritalin for five years. The New Jersey suit was filed in state court in Hackensack. Write to Richard B. Schmitt at