“While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication,” tweeted Sanofi-Aventis after Roseanne Barr blamed her tweets on the sleeping drug Ambien. While the drug maker may look like the good guy now—and enjoy a boost in Ambien/zolpidem sales––12 years ago it was a different story.
Soon after news that Ambien use could result in binge eating and driving while asleep, the drug makers was forced to launch an ad campaign that essentially told people after you take Ambien get in bed and stay there. Dieters were waking up horrified amid mountains of pizza, Krispy Kreme donuts, and Häagen-Dazs cartons consumed by their evil twin. Law enforcement officials reported traffic accidents increasing with some drivers not even recognizing police officers there to arrest them. (Dude! Can ya help me get my car out of this ditch?)
In addition to sleep-walking, sleep-driving, sleep-eating and sleep-phoning the drug was linked to sleep-sex. One woman told me she woke up after taking Ambien to find her fingers black and discovered she had drunk a bottle of black shoe polish in an Ambien blackout.
In 2006, a 36-year-old lawyer from Andover, Massachusetts, was sleep-driving on Ambien when he struck and killed a man who was changing a tire alongside his wife and young son, according to Marie Claire magazine. Two years later, a 56-year-old woman also sleep-driving while on Ambien killed a mother of 11 children.
In 2012, in San Antonio, Julie Ann Bronson, a 42-year-old flight attendant was tried for running over a mother and her two daughters while “sleep driving” and her life was “ruined” by Ambien, said her lawyer.
Also that year, the Mayo clinic announced it would no longer prescribe Ambien to inpatients because of the high risk of falls. Data on more than 16,000 hospitalized patients found that the fall rate on Ambien was more than four times that of those not on the sleeping pill. Ambien was correlated with more falls than factors like age, mental impairment, delirium or insomnia, wrote authors in Journal of Hospital Medicine, reports Newsday.
Then, The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders reported “Two Cases of Zolpidem-Associated Homicide.” “This Brief Report presents 2 cases in which concomitant zolpidem [Ambien] and paroxetine [Paxil] use was associated with uncharacteristic, complex acts of violence for which the individuals in question claimed total or partial amnesia. Neither individual had a history of aggressive behavior before killing his or her spouse; both most likely took more than 5 mg of zolpidem on the nights of their offenses.”
By 2014, emergency department visits linked to Ambien/zolpidem had doubled reported the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the agency within the HSS dedicated to the behavioral health of the nation. The drug was responsible for 42,274 visits sometimes in conjunction with other drugs and alcohol. Almost half of zolpidem-related ED visits resulted in hospital admission or transfer to another facility and a quarter resulted in intensive care treatment in the ICU.
Barr is hardly the first public figure tainted by Ambien use. In 2006, under the influence of the drug, former Rhode Island representative Patrick Kennedy drove to Capitol Hill to “vote” at 2:45 a.m., crashing his car. Police reported seeing Kennedy’s green Ford Mustang convertible “traveling at a high rate of speed in a construction zone and also swerving into the wrong lane of travel” with its lights off. Kennedy, the youngest son of the long-time Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and nephew of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, then entered rehab.
Another Kennedy-related Ambien event occurred in 2014. A generic version of Ambien was found in the bloodstream of Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and former wife of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, when she swerved into a tractor-trailer and kept driving. Witnesses said she was had been weaving for miles. Kennedy told police that she may have confused the Ambien with her daily thyroid med. In court she blamed a “partial seizure.”
In 2009, Ambien was again in the news when Tiger Woods reportedly used it to spice up sex with his string of consorts which led to his separation from Elin Nordegren Woods.
The sale of Ambien and other sleeping pills has boomed over the last two decades thanks to TV drug ads. To further grow the insomnia market, Pharma has also rolled out subcategories of insomnia like chronic, acute, transient, initial, delayed-onset, middle-of-the-night, early-morning and non-restful sleep so everyone finds the sleeping pill that is exactly right for them. Ka-ching. Yet there is a dark underside to the national love affair with sleeping pills like Ambien that Pharma has produced: out of control behavior, car accidents, ED admissions and worse.
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.