Stephanie Saul at the New York Times did a great article today, “Sleep Drugs Found Only Mildly Effective, but Wildly Popular” The article dispels the myths concerning the effectiveness of the expensive brand-name prescription sleep aids whose television ads blanket the airwaves every night, including Lunesta (made by Sepracor [NYSE:SEPR]), Ambien and Ambien CR (made by Sanofi Aventis [NYSE:SNY]) and Rozerem (made by Takeda Pharmaceuticals).

We made many of the same points as this article last year when we gave the makers of Lunesta and Ambien/Ambien CR one of our Bitter Pill Awards, specifically the While You Were Sleeping Award: For Overmarketing Insomnia Medications to Anyone who’s ever had a Bad Night’s Sleep.

Some of the key points that the article made:

  • American consumers spend $4.5 billion a year for sleep medications.
  • As a group, Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata reduced the average time to go to sleep 12.8 minutes compared with fake pills (placebo), and increased total sleep time 11.4 minutes. Hardly results so impressive that they warrant $4.5 billion in annual spending.
  • Two older drugs, Halcion and Restoril, caused people to fall asleep 10 minutes faster and slept 32 minutes longer than the placebo group.

So the newer drugs caused people to fall asleep a whopping 2.8 minutes faster than the older drugs, yet the older drugs increased sleep time almost three times more than the newer. And the price difference? Accordingo to the article, Lunesta and Ambien CR ring in at about $4.00 a pill, generic Ambien at about $2 a pill, and Sonata at $3.50 a pill. The older (now all generic) drugs? 30 to 50 cents. So the older drugs are about equally effective, yet about 1/4 to 1/10th of the price.

As we said last year upon giving the While You Were Sleeping Award:

Ads for insomnia medications are promising trouble-free sleep to an increasingly stressed and sleepless nation. But in doing so, these ads are creating a host of problems: exposing people to dangerous side effects, causing addiction, costing patients and insurers billions of dollars, encouraging them to pop a pill rather than find the root cause of their insomnia, and promoting the dangerous notion that the solution to life’s problems is in a prescription bottle, rather than in changing our behavior, habits and lifestyle.

Last year, the Times ran an excellent article by Jane Brody about alternatives to prescription sleep medications, “Help for Chronic Insomnia Isn’t Always Found in a Pill.

Stephanie Saul’s article, and the research she reports on, hopefully will begin to encourage people to question the claims in ads for prescription sleep aids, and to explore both the drug-free alternatives and the broader causes behind their lack of sleep.