By Peggy Gargis
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - A federal court in Alabama will centralize at least 1,200 civil lawsuits against Pfizer Inc over its smoking-cessation drug Chantix, which plaintiffs say can lead to suicide.
U.S. Judge Inge Johnson of the Northern District of Alabama is handling pretrial proceedings and will preside over the civil trials unless the parties settle out of court, the court said.
"The centralization will serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the just and efficient conduct of the litigation," according to court documents.
Worldwide sales of Chantix for the third quarter of 2010 stood at $163 mln, up 5 pct from one year earlier.
About 60 percent of the cases allege suicide, attempted suicide or other overt acts of injury, Ernest Cory, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said on Tuesday.
"Chantix was put on the market without adequate warnings and it is a dangerous drug ... Many people prior to July 2009 were not aware that this drug was not tested in any patient with any mental condition," he said.
"As a result, it appears that several thousands of people have been seriously injured or have died from using this drug, and that's a tragedy for them and their families. That's a tragedy that didn't need to happen," he said.
Pfizer defends the drug, which has been approved in at least 86 countries as a smoking cessation aid.
"Pfizer acted responsibly and appropriately at all times in connection with the development, approval, and marketing of Chantix," said spokeswoman Victoria Davis.
"There is no reliable scientific evidence that Chantix causes the neuropsychiatric events alleged in these lawsuits. Chantix is an effective treatment option for many smokers who want to quit and we intend to defend this important medication," she said in a statement.
Johnson was first appointed by the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multi-district Litigation in late 2009 to handle the cases because she was already overseeing some cases and because a clear majority of plaintiffs favored her district.
The first lawsuit filed against Pfizer regarding Chantix was in Indiana in 2008 by the Birmingham-based law firm of Cory, Watson, Crowder & DeGaris.
Lawsuits filed in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan claim that at the time the plaintiffs took Chantix, and that Pfizer did not tell doctors and patients about dangers it allegedly knew were related to the drug, including depression and thoughts of suicide.
Although Pfizer subsequently added warnings to its package insert, the law firm that filed all three lawsuits alleged the drug's label is still inadequate.
Pfizer introduced Chantix in the United States in 2006, hoping it would become a multibillion-dollar product and revive flagging profits. The drug's sales have fallen off as concerns about side effects increased.
(Editing by Matthew Bigg, Bernard Orr)