French court finds Servier guilty of manslaughter in diet pill trial, fines pharma millions
A French court found pharma company Servier guilty of deception and manslaughter Monday in one of the country’s biggest health scandals.
The trial dealt with Servier’s diabetes drug Mediator, or benfluorex, which was pulled from shelves in France back in 2009 after concerns it was related to a string of deaths and serious side effects. As part of the penalties, Servier was fined nearly $3.2 million and a former executive was sentenced to four years of a suspended prison term, the Guardian reported.
France’s health medicines agency was also fined about $350,000 for failing to act quickly enough in regards to warnings.
Mediator had been on the French market starting in 1976, billed as a way to address excess weight in diabetics. However, the drug, an amphetamine-based appetite suppressant, was widely prescribed as a diet pill, including to many healthy women. Authorities estimate about 5 million took the drug over its 33-year lifespan.
Estimates range from 500 to 2,000 deaths among those who took the drug, on top of a whole host of individuals coming down with serious heart and cardiovascular problems. Reports had said before the trial that many women found themselves unable to climb stairs as a result of the side effects.
Prosecutors sought to determine how long Servier knew about the potential for side effects and whether or not the pharma engaged in a coverup. Servier “knowingly concealed the medication’s true characteristics” as early as the 1970s, according to the indictment.
The alarm was first raised by a French doctor in 2007, but concerns had lingered since the mid-1990s after the removal of a similar drug from the US in 1997. One doctor testified in the trial that he flagged issues as far back as 1998 but was pressured into retracting his findings, according to the AP.
Mediator was never sold in the US or the UK, but did hit shelves in some European countries like Switzerland, Italy and Spain. Those countries pulled the drug in the early 2000s.
When French regulators first announced the drug was suspected in the deaths, it sparked a national outrage and prompted a series of industry reforms. Servier had acknowledged the deaths and said at the time it was working on compensating victims, having handed $146 million in payments. It denied, though, charges that it misled the public and lied about Mediator’s side effects.
The trial involved about 6,500 plaintiffs and 21 defendants stood trial, including 14 individuals who either worked at Servier or were associated with their marketing of the drug. All told, Servier was found guilty of manslaughter, involuntary wounding and aggravated deception while being acquitted of fraud.