Heartburn. Everyone’s experienced it at some point to a varying degree. That uncomfortable pressure and pain in your chest, the acid burning up your esophagus, the sensation of food coming back up your throat... It isn’t pleasant.
In those instances, it makes sense to swing by the pharmacy and pick up some heartburn medication. Maybe the problem can be solved with a short course of Tums or Mylanta. Many individuals who experience heartburn at least twice a week usually need a low dose of these proton pump inhibitors, or PPIs like Prilosec, on a daily basis to control the reflux of stomach acid. (Those who do experience these symptoms on a routine basis might have GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.)
PPIs used to be available only by prescription. Now, however, they – along with their generic counterparts – can be found at any pharmacy. According to researchers, the heartburn industry is supposed to reach $4.34 billion by 2025. It is insanely lucrative, and who really needs working kidneys, anyway?
Don’t worry. We’ll get into that later in the article.
Proton pump inhibitors are intended for patients who experience heartburn, GERD or other reflux disorders. Stomach acid splashes up into the esophagus, which can cause symptoms like chest pain, nausea and food regurgitation. Many patients on multiple medications take Prilosec, Nexium, Prevacid or the like to control the sensations caused by taking so many drugs at once.
The following are the scientific names of available PPI medications:
According to Consumer Reports, up to 70% of people who take PPIs could potentially find relief in less potent remedies. When a patient uses a PPI, it is recommended that it be used for the shortest period of time possible in order to reduce the chance of rebound symptoms (AKA symptoms that worsen in intensity following the cessation of medication).
Put simply, proton pump inhibitors work on the cells in your stomach lining and reduce the amount of acid in your stomach. Stomach acid is so corrosive that the tissue lining must protect itself with a mucus membrane. When that membrane breaks down because of too much acid, it can harm the tissue and create an ulcer. A PPI reduces the stomach acid as well as “inhibiting” the proton pump, which is a colloquial name for the hydrogen-potassium adenosine triphosphatase enzyme system. They also assist in healing ulcers caused by acid erosion in the esophagus and part of the stomach called the duodenum.
Other treated conditions are for the eradication of H. pylori, a bacteria that can cause stomach ulcers. It is also used in the prevention of ulcers caused by NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen) and in the treatment of a rare condition called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome (AKA the overproduction of stomach acid).
Omeprazole, the first PPI medication available by prescription, was introduced to the market in 1979 and was approved for over the counter use in 2003. Doctors were told of the wonders of this gastric acid secretion inhibitor that saved patients from the discomfort of heartburn. A variety of human and animal trials began, and it was not until 1992 that the first reports of kidney failure started surfacing.
Omeprazole was discovered to be a possible cause of acute interstitial cystitis, a serious side effect that can damage kidney function. This can cause the following symptoms:
Other PPI medications such as pantoprazole, lansoprazole and rabeprazole were the next to be linked to this condition.
PPI use was linked to an increase in the bacteria known as C. difficile diarrhea in 2003, which can cause conditions like diarrhea or even a life-threatening inflammation of the colon. In 2006, scientists reported that hypomagnesemia (low magnesium levels) was also a potential side effect, as well as vitamin B12 deficiency. In 2009, it was linked to an increased risk of community-acquired pneumonia. In 2009, it was linked to recurrent heart attacks. The Food and Drug Administration was also called on to include a bone fracture warning on PPIs, though they have so far declined to do so, as bone fractures are linked to long-term use of PPIs. Most individuals complete a short-term regimen, which lessens the likelihood of any fractures by a significant amount. A litany of other health issues – strokes, artery damage, increased risk of death, and even the development of food allergies – have cropped up during studies.
Two JAMA Internal Medicine studies linked PPIs to renal failure in 2013, an increased risk of dementia in 2016, and increased risks of heart attack, renal failure and dementia that same year.
A slew of consumers began lawsuits in 2016, claiming that drug manufacturers had known of risks for years and continued to market the PPIs anway. They had a collection of conditions like kidney failure, kidney disease, kidney injury and acute interstitial cystitis. Specifically, the plaintiffs stated:
There is currently only one multidistrict litigation (MDL) for proton pump inhibitor medication. This is the Proton Pump Inhibitor Products Liability Litigation MDL (MDL #2789), consolidated in the district court of New Jersey, which has almost 195 individual federal lawsuits within it.
A previous PPI-related MDL in California combined 47 bone fracture cases in 2012. While this MDL grew to more than 1,000 individual lawsuits, the judge decided in favor of AstraZeneca in 2014. Takeda Pharmaceuticals, also included in the MDL, decided to settle with plaintiffs for an unknown sum that same year, and that particular MDL was concluded.
Just because an MDL exists does not require participation, though. Many plaintiffs choose to go through state court instead of federal court, or they have not been ordered to join an MDL by the judicial panel overseeing the combined cases. The following companies are currently facing lawsuits:
There was a class action in 2015 regarding marketing deception. There are many key differences between an MDL and a class action, though the consensus is that a class action is not a good avenue for medication lawsuits. An MDL is a type of federal case that groups together similar cases from all over the country that share similar issues. By not duplicating discovery (as in, not having each plaintiff conduct the research when it could be done together), the process moves much faster.
The class action was settled between plaintiffs and defendant AstraZeneca for $20 million, as they had tried to create a chemically-identical medication to Prilosec, which is called Nexium. Plaintiffs claimed that AstraZeneca wanted to have customers buy the more expensive Nexium because the patent for Prilosec had run out. Even though the drugs were almost the same, patients were persuaded by a $260 million marketing campaign to buy the on-brand version rather than the cheaper one.
Lawsuits against drug manufacturers have so far led to substantial settlements, though only one in a lawsuit by actual consumers; most of the other settled cases have to do with business practices. Pfizer settled with the US government in 2012 for $55 million (marketing Protonix for unapproved, off-label uses). AstraZeneca settled with the government in 2015 for $7.9 million over alleged Nexium kickbacks. Then, in 2015, Teva Pharmaceuticals (a generic drug company) settled lawsuits over claims that it accepted money to keep generic versions of Nexium off the market.
The FDA has not issued any recalls, though some of the companies have issued their own (Omeprazole, for instance, has had 11 recalls over the years). The FDA has, however, done their own work on PPI labels so that risks are more comprehensive and detailed:
First, talk with your doctor to see if you can fix the problem with little intervention. Perhaps you can try ceasing the medication for a time or changing to one linked to fewer side effects. Do not stop any medication regimen without speaking to a health professional, as well as weighing the benefits against the risks. Every medication has potential side effects, and your doctor knew this when prescribing it. The majority of people can take a PPI without side effects, so there might be another issue at play.
Second, talk to an attorney. Each state has a statute of limitations (AKA the time window in which to file your legal claim). Once you are past that window of time, you can no longer file. Some states only offer one year for cases, so do this sooner rather than later. A lawyer will be able to preserve your claim.
Keep in mind, however, that pharmaceutical cases take forever to complete. It might be a decade before you see any money, if any money at all. Make sure to keep this in mind and temper your expectations.
For a case like this, you will need a lawyer with many years of experience and who knows how to coordinate work with other attorneys. If you have not met with a lawyer, consider looking through the Enjuris directory for someone in your state who can help.