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For frequent heartburn sufferers, doctors often prescribe Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs), which work by reducing the amount of acid in the stomach. The drugs are so popular in fact, that the PPI market is worth over $10 billion in the U.S. alone and the three most popular PPI’s, Nexium, Prilosec and Prevacid, are now available over the counter.


In aggressive marketing campaigns, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Rosie O’Donnell, and John Elway have sung the praises of PPIs for easing acid reflux. But the most well-known celebrity endorser is Dan Whitney. Better known as Larry the Cable Guy, he showcases his everyman persona and “Git-R-Done” attitude as a spokesman for Prilosec and implores folks with heartburn to, “take the purple pill.” The good natured ads highlight Larry the Cable Guy’s folksy humor, often include a sight gag or stunt, and usually end with Larry enjoying some good old fashioned barbeque.


But in an if-you-blink-you-might-miss-it moment, Larry the Cable Guy’s ads for Prilosec also feature an ominous warning. Appearing ever so briefly on the screen is a warning that the drug should be taken for no more than 14 days, and not more often than every four months. The casual happy-go-lucky tone of the ads seem in stark contrast to a drug that if not taken sparingly has potential life threating side effects.


Since the introduction of PPIs in 1990 there have been dozens of studies conducted. Results of the studies have shown the use of PPIs to be associated with an assortment of health problems including low magnesium levels, bone fractures, problematic interactions with cardiovascular drugs, and kidney failure.


The drugs have also been shown to have an association with infections such as pneumonia and clostridium difficile. Research seems to indicate that by lowering stomach acidity allows dangerous bacteria to thrive and then spread to other organs.


Another study conducted by researchers at Houston Methodist and Stanford showed that proton pump inhibitors might increase the risk of heart attack. In reviewing the records of 2.9 million patients the researchers found patients who took the proton pump inhibitors were between 16 and 21 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack. The strength of the link is strong enough that patients should consult with their doctors to determine if PPI drugs could put them at risk.


The most troubling study regarding PPIs appeared this past February in JAMA Internal Medicine. The findings indicate an increased risk of chronic kidney disease among PPI users. Using data from 260,000 patients in two communities the study found that those who took prescription proton pump inhibitors were 20 percent to 50 percent more likely to develop chronic kidney disease than nonusers. In an accompanying editorial to the study, Dr. Adam Schoenfeld, an internal medicine resident at UCSF, was concerned not only about the link between kidney disease and PPIs, but also noted alarmingly that the drug is widely overprescribed.


Only cardiac and cholesterol medications are taken more than PPIs and despite the health warnings the number of people taking proton pump inhibitors continues to grow each year. Right now the CDC estimates that at least16 percent of Americans between 55 and 64 are taking PPIs. No wonder the major drug companies can afford to use big name celebrities like John Elway and Larry the Cable Guy in their ads – it’s a buyers market generating billions in profits.


The cruel irony is that most people don’t need to risk their health by taking PPIs. The drug is the easy way out and the makers of Nexium, Prilosec and Prevacid know it. Acid reflux is more often than not caused by lifestyle, and specifically by poor eating and drinking habits. The best cure for acid reflux is a healthy lifestyle that includes an appropriate amount of healthy foods, limited consumption of alcohol, and regular physical activity. Using PPIs as a treatment for acid reflux should be used only as a last resort.


But common sense doesn’t sell drugs. Larry the Cable Guy does by reinforcing how you can eat and drink however much you want – any problems can be masked simply by “taking the purple pill.”


At present many patients continue still continue to take PPIs for months or years without understanding or learning of the risks.  Drug companies continue to blanket us with ads promoting PPI’s, in spite of research indicating all the risks associated with the drugs. The message seems to be that any problems with your lifestyle can be solved with a little pill, and there is a lot of money wrapped up in that deceit.

Lawsuits are just starting to be filed against the manufacturers of these PPIs for over marketing and putting profits ahead of safety.


If you or a loved one has developed chronic kidney disease, suffered kidney failure or other serious medical injury such as heart attack or bone fractures after using a PPI medication, please do not hesitate to contact Saunders and Walker for a free consultation.





One Comment

  1. Gravatar for Kathy Edwards
    Kathy Edwards

    Been on Prevacid twice a day for years for hiatal hernia pain. I've developed heart condition severe a fib, sinus node dysfunction, told body's own pace makers misfire, I was put into an induced coma for a month to find drugs to lower heart rate ( was over 200 beats per min). All the heart meds and their own side effects, doctors still haven't found anything that works. Could Prevacid have caused this lengthy ongoing condition that has debilitated my life? Just turned 60.

    Kamloops, BC Canada

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