GAM­BLING AND SEX AD­DIC­TION: THE MEDICINE THAT DE­STROYED LIVES

It all be­gan when a woman came into the Sal­va­tion Army of­fices and said the words, “My med­i­ca­tion makes me gam­ble.” For the next eight years, the life of Maria Turn­bull, 51, a Salvos fi­nan­cial coun­sel­lor in Cam­ber­well, Vic­to­ria, was dom­i­nated by a court c

Sunday Herald Sun - Body and Soul - - HEALTH -

“I’m a fi­nan­cial coun­sel­lor with the Salvos. I spe­cialise in gam­bling is­sues. That’s my love. It sounds odd but it’s true – I help peo­ple who have lost homes, jobs and fam­i­lies but in 2005, a woman in her early 60s came to see me and her story wasn’t like any I’d heard be­fore. “My med­i­ca­tion is making me gam­ble,” she said. I’ll call her Jane. She’d never been a gam­bler, there was no history of ad­dic­tion in her fam­ily but she’d lost about $200,000 on the pok­ies. She’d lost her su­per­an­nu­a­tion, re­dun­dancy, set­tle­ment with her ex-hus­band and all her fam­ily heir­looms. Now she’d been de­clared bank­rupt.

She handed me an ar­ti­cle from the pa­per. It ex­plained how a med­i­ca­tion called a dopamine ag­o­nist, pre­scribed to peo­ple with Parkin­son’s and rest­less leg syn­drome, made peo­ple have com­pul­sive be­hav­iours. Jane had rest­less leg syn­drome and had been pre­scribed that drug.

I went on­line. Stud­ies had been done in the US that in­di­cated there was a link

“This case was about ac­count­abil­ity. The drug com­pa­nies knew about the side ef­fects and didn’t tell us”

be­tween the med­i­ca­tion and com­pul­sive be­hav­iours. A class ac­tion had been taken there that re­sulted in the drug com­pany pay­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in dam­ages and the med­i­ca­tion now had to have a warn­ing on the box.

But there were no warn­ings on the Aus­tralian med­i­ca­tion, even though it was dis­trib­uted by the same com­pany, Pfizer. What were they think­ing? I won­dered.

THE VIC­TIMS OF MED­I­CA­TION

I kept work­ing with Jane. And soon af­ter, an­other woman in her mid-60s came to see me. She was at risk of los­ing her house be­cause of her gam­bling. She had Parkin­son’s. She too was on the med­i­ca­tion.

I con­tacted Parkin­son’s Vic­to­ria. They said they were about to do some aware­ness­rais­ing on the is­sue. I of­fered to help and we started telling peo­ple about the find­ings from the US. The ABC con­tacted me and in Jan­uary 2008, they ran a story on it.

Shortly af­ter, warn­ings went on the med­i­ca­tion, and we were in­un­dated with peo­ple want­ing to sue the drug com­pany. Jane had wanted to take le­gal ac­tion, but one per­son can’t sue a drug com­pany and her GP had just laughed at her. How­ever, now we had a case.

The sto­ries peo­ple told were heart­break­ing. As well as com­pul­sive gam­bling, they were in­dulging in com­pul­sive eat­ing, smok­ing and hy­per-sex­u­al­ity, and all the other fac­tors that go with that, in­clud­ing se­crecy, il­le­gal be­hav­iours, pros­ti­tu­tion, in­ter­net porn and fraud.

There were in­stances of com­pul­sive speed­ing – one woman had been driv­ing at 200km an hour up the Calder High­way in Vic­to­ria. An­other had been shoplift­ing com­pul­sively. One had com­pul­sive cre­ativ­ity – she wasn’t eat­ing or sleep­ing, all she did was cre­ate art­works.

Th­ese peo­ple were caught in aw­ful cy­cles. Their com­pul­sive be­hav­iours were adding to their stress, which added to their symp­toms, which meant they took more med­i­ca­tion, which added to their be­hav­iours. And their doc­tors didn’t re­alise be­cause the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany hadn’t told them. One per­son told me: “I’ve lost ev­ery­thing but my Parkin­son’s.”

FIGHT­ING TO BE HEARD

In 2011, I saw a story on the news. It said a Tas­ma­nian MP called Terry Martin – a man who’d done a lot of char­ity work, in­clud­ing with the Salvos – was be­ing charged with a se­ries of sex­ual of­fences in­clud­ing un­law­ful sex­ual in­ter­course with a girl un­der 17. He’d seen 162 sex work­ers and had hun­dreds of im­ages of child porn. He had Parkin­son’s.

I got a mes­sage to his lawyers be­cause I re­alised they didn’t know of the link be­tween the med­i­ca­tion and com­pul­sive be­hav­iours. Martin was given a sus­pended sen­tence. I hope my in­for­ma­tion helped his de­fence. The judge was sat­is­fied that his of­fences were re­lated to the side-ef­fects of his med­i­ca­tion and that once off it, his sex­ual ap­petites dis­ap­peared. But he still lost his job, rep­u­ta­tion and re­quired hos­pi­tal treat­ment for the phys­i­cal abuse he re­ceived as a re­sult.

Mean­while, our case dragged on. There were end­less hear­ings. The drug com­pa­nies didn’t even bother turn­ing up and even­tu­ally the lawyers ran into dif­fi­cul­ties.

“Don’t give up,” I pleaded. I asked them to give all the lit­i­gants my de­tails so they at least had some­one to con­tact, and then tried to raise sup­port. I con­tacted the Michael J. Fox Foun­da­tion for Parkin­son’s Re­search and gave talks at com­mu­nity days.

I asked the lit­i­gants, “Do you know any­one who could help?” and some­one gave me a name: John Rowe, a Sydney bar­ris­ter. I sent him a DVD of the ABC re­port. He flew to Mel­bourne and met the lawyers. “I’m on board,” he told me af­ter­wards.

JUS­TICE IN COURT

Rowe was the saving of the class ac­tion. From then on the court­room was a lot fuller. A QC came in for the drug com­pa­nies. More lit­i­gants came on board. In 2013, drug com­pa­nies Aspen Phar­ma­care and Eli Lilly set­tled out of court. Pfizer fol­lowed in 2014. Al­most 200 peo­ple ben­e­fited fi­nan­cially.

Sadly, Jane never got to spend her com­pen­sa­tion. She died in 2012 of health com­pli­ca­tions. Some peo­ple ask if I re­ceived any­thing and I tell them, “$10”.

That’s be­cause when Jane and I first dis­cussed tak­ing le­gal ac­tion she said it wasn’t about the money, it was about the ac­count­abil­ity and she didn’t care if it was only $20, she would give me half.

We’d be­come great friends so I was asked to give the eu­logy at her fu­neral. When I walked into the fu­neral par­lour there was her cof­fin. On the lid was a framed $10 note.

I keep it on the walls of my of­fice be­cause it re­minds me how Jane and I were on the same page. This case wasn’t about money. Money can never buy back what those lit­i­gants lost – fam­i­lies, rep­u­ta­tions, their whole iden­ti­ties. This case was about ac­count­abil­ity. The drug com­pa­nies knew about the side ef­fects and didn’t tell us.

The two drugs that were the sub­ject of lit­i­ga­tion were Per­max and Cabaser. Not ev­ery­one is af­fected but any­one con­cerned should talk to their GP.”

Fi­nan­cial coun­sel­lor Maria Turn­bull bravely helped take on ma­jor drug com­pa­nies in court

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