Patients Say Abilify Turned Them Into Compulsive Gamblers and Sex Addicts

Warning labels in Canada and Europe said Abilify could unleash destructive behaviors, but no one told Americans until thousands of them said it was too late.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

A year after her father took hostages and committed suicide by cop, Lucy kept freezing in the supermarket aisle.

“I couldn’t breathe, literally, my husband would often have to come pick me up from whatever aisle of the store I was stuck in and drive me home,” the traumatized daughter confided in a letter she wrote to her attorney that he provided to The Daily Beast.

The woman who had been happily married for 25 years was now sitting on a psychiatrist’s couch and popping a daily regimen of meds that she called the “pharmaceutical cocktail.”

They included Abilify, which was supposed to aid in treating her post-traumatic stress disorder.

“So began a life that was hazy, kind of disconnected,” she described in the letter.

Lucy blames the drug for her insatiable hunger for gambling that saw her drive at all hours of the night to Cripple Creek, a legion of Wild West-themed casinos in Colorado.

“I started going all the time,” she wrote. “I never even won, never came back with so much as a dime in my pocket,” she confessed.

Lucy burned through unemployment checks, pawned her mechanic husband’s automotive tools, and lied about needing money to buy baby formula.

As she puts it in the letter, “Nothing was off-limits when it came to getting the money I needed to keep up the ruse.”

Fanatical about the casino, and filling time in-between with lottery scratchers, Lucy’s urge to roll the dice was so desperate she admitted how she mastered her very own disappearing act.

“I’d stuff my bed at night to fool my husband that I was asleep when actually I was spinning the slots,” she admitted in the letter.

Like Lucy, thousands of patients who had been prescribed Abilify say in a mass tort lawsuit the drug created compulsions for sex and gambling, and that the drug makers knew of the serious side effects (as evidenced by warning labels in Canada and Europe) but waited years not to warn U.S. consumers.

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“There will probably be over 1,000 cases,” Stephen Hunt Jr., of the Alabama-based law firm Cory Watson, who is repping some of the gamblers and sex-obsessed victims airing their Abilify horror stories after his firm and others began a national ad campaign.

Representatives reached by The Daily Beast for both Otsuka and Bristol-Myers Squibb, the companies behind the drug, cited policies to not comment on ongoing litigation.

Aripiprazole, as Abilify is known off-brand, is an antipsychotic created by Otsuka in 1988 to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The drug acts on dopamine receptors in the brain that are responsible for motor functions (like tremors), executive functions (like memory), and reward systems (like addiction).

Otsuka teamed with Bristol-Myers Squibb to market the drug in the U.S. in 2002. Five years later it was dosed as an add-on for depression. Otsuka America described it “like a thermostat to restore balance.”

Thomas J. Moore has done extensive research and published papers about drugs similar to Abilify and their adverse effects; some of them involve pathological gambling and hypersexuality. He is a senior scientist at the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit watchdog organization that seeks to prevent mistakes in medicine dispensing and prescribing.

Moore studied 1,580 cases over a decade that included several impulsive behaviors such as pathological gambling, excessive sexual activity, and compulsive shopping. In a 2014 paper he found, “the associations were significant, the magnitude of the effects was large, and the effects were seen for all 6 dopamine receptor agonist drugs.”

He explained it in layman’s terms to The Daily Beast.

“The drug triggers a pathological urge to gamble constantly, sometimes among persons with no previous interest,” he said of Abilify’s effect on dopamine receptors. “It might be people starting to spend $300 a week on lottery tickets, and in other cases people will gamble away tens of thousands of dollars.”

Several complaints by users of Abilify say the companies inexplainably failed to warn patients after Canada and Europe hit the brakes and updated their warning labels.

The case, according to numerous attorneys we spoke to involved in the litigation, is likely to draw on precedent from a former case decided eight years ago by a federal jury that forced Pfizer to pay a retired Wisconsin police officer $8.2 million in damages for failing to label their Parkinson’s drug Maripex (which was one of the six drugs studied by Moore in his paper) that also caused “pathological gambling.”

Back in 2011, one drug-pushing television ad circa 2011 featured a cautious voice over announcing: “Abilify is not for everyone.”

Then came the cringing laundry list of side effects plucked from the fine print. Abilify is a no-no for kids and teenagers and it can induce suicide, coma, and seizures and be lethal for any elderly person battling dementia or fighting diabetes.

The actress in the advertisement portraying a lost soul who finds her smile in 90 seconds, isn’t phased. “Adding Abilify has made the difference for me,” she beams.

Many Abilify patients describe in various testimonials and case studies published in medical papers that the pill’s pull on them created a “hypnotic state” while another said it was “mentally crippling.” For some of the admitted compulsive gamblers while on the drug, the casino delivered a “euphoric feeling” and for one it was a “reason to live.”

One woman’s life was thrown into a “tailspin” while taking Abilify.

It wasn’t gambling fever that caught her when she began popping Abilify. The woman was hooked on sex.

“I started talking to men online, thriving on the attention,” she wrote in vivid detail in a letter to her lawyer, adding that she created a risque Facebook page to lasso lads. “I had about 100 messages from men trying to hit on me.

“I started becoming obsessed with sexual fantasies and with taking pictures of myself to send to a few select ‘friends’… I just couldn’t stop with the pictures and fantasies.”

The cat and mouse play advanced and when she offered her digits to a male “friend” they began sexting each other. Then it all ended.

“My husband caught me,” she said.

The pictures didn’t remain private to just her male “friends” either. She was called before her boss and shamed for the explicit photos.

In addition, she claims to have gone on excessive shopping sprees, buying cars and an addition to their garage, all paid for by loans. She and her husband filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and saw their vehicle get repossessed and are still in arrears with the IRS for thousands of dollars.

It wasn’t until her husband caught an Abilify commercial citing its health ramifications that she saw hope and together they “realized that my compulsive and obsessive behaviors were a result of taking the drug.”

She suggests that since she’s been off Abilify “worries don’t dominate my mind and my behavior” and that she’s having “real conversations” with her husband.

In sum, she is left agonizing over how her name has been permanently stained. “The drug has destroyed my life, my reputation, and the lives of those I love.”

Last week, Patrick Parks of Delaware, Ohio, sued Bristol-Myers Squibb and Otsuka America in federal court for turning him into a degenerate gambler.

The newest case comes after the first compulsive behavior federal civil case filed on Jan. 12 of this year by a couple Brad and Denise Miley of Maple Grove, Minnesota. They claim it was Brad’s Abilify intake that caused them to suffer more than $75,000 in gambling losses.

Like the Mileys, Parks claims in the papers that he “was prescribed and took the prescription drug… around May 2013” and in turn “began compulsively gambling shortly thereafter...”

Once he got off Abilify in August 2014 Parks apparently steered from casinos and “stopped compulsively gambling.”

Parks didn’t realize his excessive urge to burn through more than $75,000 was because of the prescribed Abilify meds until Nov. 18, 2014, the complaint reads.

As with a stack of similar complaints from California to Florida, Parks’s master complaint blames the parent companies for “fraudulently concealing” and failing “to warn advise, educate or otherwise inform Abilify users or prescribers in the United States about the risk of compulsive gambling or other compulsive behaviors,” according to the complaint.

It goes on to blame Bristol-Myers Squibb and Otsuka America for deceptively holding back warnings from patients.

Abilify was approved in the U.S. in 2002 but, according to many of the complaints filed, it “wrongfully and unjustly profited at the expense of patient safety and full disclosure to the medical community by failing to include language about gambling in the United States labeling and by failing to otherwise warn the public and the medical community about Abilify’s association with gambling—despite opportunities to do so.”

The complaint cites how in the fall of 2012 the European Medicines Agency pushed for an updated label of Abilify to transparently add to the “undesirable effects” so they included that “reports of pathological gambling have been reported among patients prescribed Abilify, regardless of whether these patients had a prior history of gambling.”

In 2015, Canada adapted the exact same language to its Abilify labeling.

But it was apparently business as usual in the U.S.

“Despite these warnings and advisories in Europe and Canada—for the same drug sold to patients in the United States—the labeling for Abilify did not adequately warn about the risk of compulsive gambling and contained no mention that pathological gambling has been reported in patients prescribed Abilify,” according to the pooled language of the many complaints we reviewed.

Finally, on May 3, 2016, the FDA took action and requiring the companies and patients about Abilify’s side effects and added to its labels “compulsive or uncontrollable urges to gamble, binge eat, shop, and have sex.”

The Abilify label now places the onus on prescribers to ask patients or their caregivers “specifically about the development of intense gambling urges… Consider dose reduction or stopping the medication if a patient develops such urges.”

The drug makers, the complaint states, “were under a duty to disclose the true character, quality and nature of risks associated with use of Abilify….”

The complaints also allege that the companies “failed to fully and adequately test or research the drug...” and that they were incompetent when it came to research and development and “should have had, knowledge that Abilify can cause compulsive behaviors like gambling.”

And what with all the conclusive studies dating back to 2011 the complaints say the company misled the public and especially its patients by not investigating or conducting “any studies on the compulsive behavior side effects of Abilify” or “failed to make public the results of any studies or investigations that they might have done.”

It also didn’t send out so-called Dear Doctor letters that serve to “inform the medical community of the risk or association of Abilify use and gambling.”

Moore points to a scientific methodology that can help separate the actual cases versus the potentially frivolous claims.

He walks through a variety of “checkpoints” Moore noted that it could be difficult to determine whether the drug or some other factor triggered the urge to gamble.

“We can ask a series of questions to assess the drug’s possible role,” Moore said.

His questions include: Did the person have a gambling problem before taking the drug? Did the gambling urge go away after stopping the drug? Were there other factors that might explain the gambling better than a drug effect? Do we have cases where the gambling urge appeared only after starting the drug, stopped after halting the drug, and then reappeared again if the patient took the drug again?

Moore said everyone needs to think about the possibility that a person may not be responsible for pathological gambling or excessive sexual behavior.

“We live in a society whose rules and laws assume people are responsible for their actions, including running up a large gambling debt,” Moore said. “But we have scientific evidence that sometimes a drug can trigger a pathological urge to gamble so severe it can ruin someone’s life.”