About 190 women have died while taking Yaz and Yasmin, Bayer's (BAYRY) two leading contraceptive pill brands, according to the Swiss media, and the company faces a shareholder motion condemning its marketing of the brands at its April 29 annual meeting.
The vote is unlikely to pass, but it will draw attention to Bayer's increasing problems on its contraceptive franchise. Through February 2011, Bayer faces 6,850 lawsuits in the U.S. accusing the pills of creating potentially lethal blood clots and gall bladder damage, according to page 242 of its annual report. The number of suits is growing fast. Last October, there were "only" 4,200 suits. In September, the total was just 2,000.
The number of fatalities alleged in those suits is unknown, but a little-noticed German-language report on Swiss Television last year claimed that a search of the FDA's adverse event database found "in round figures" 140 deaths associated with Yasmin, and 50 with Yaz, the newer brand. Those numbers will be used against Bayer at its shareholder meeting.
Bad publicity: Customers dropping dead
The database contains unconfirmed reports that vary wildly in quality, so the true number of deaths will likely be lower. Nonetheless, the headline number coupled with the lawsuit count will make it harder for Bayer to publicize its argument that the pills' new estrogen-progestin combination are not more dangerous than cheaper, older pills.
While all pharmaceuticals have a certain "death rate" associated with them, birth control pills are generally taken by young, healthy women who are unlikely to suddenly drop dead. That's what makes any unusual death rate associated with birth control so alarming.
In 2009, the Yaz franchise was Bayer's most valuable property, earning â‚¬1.2 billion. Competition from cheap generics lopped off 13 percent of those sales in 2010, which declined to â‚¬1.1 billion. It's now Bayer's second-biggest revenue driver but it could end up being its number one problem.