Rising sales of Ambien point to sleep deficit

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October 15, 2006|By Andrew Leckey | Andrew Leckey,Tribune Media Services

Sleep is underrated in today's working world.

We hear tales of driven chief executives who catch three or four hours of sleep before heading to the office for a nice 5 a.m. start of the day.

Travel cuts into sleep time. My cross-country flight last week was four hours late, and I'll bet most business travelers on the plane made it to the office on time the next day. Traffic puts such a strain on commuters that they depart for work hours before they need to show up.

Many workers are overscheduled, so there's no way for them to get a good night's sleep between workdays. This problem goes beyond impaired efficiency and is a health and safety concern.

Companies should therefore develop corporate sleep policies. That's the contention of Dr. Charles Czeisler, a Harvard Medical School professor, in a conversation in the October issue of Harvard Business Review.

Such policies would prohibit overscheduling, working truly excessive hours or taking red-eye flights. They would educate employees about the interrelated nature of sleep and health, as well as how alcohol and caffeine interfere with sleep. Supervisors would also be trained in managing employees with fatigue problems.

Whether or not such policies ever get off the ground, sleep has become an important consideration for many people. Finding time often isn't the problem; rather, it's putting worries out of mind so sleep is possible.

That's why drugs to induce sleep have become so common and controversial. Czeisler isn't in favor of their widespread use, but their sales are on the rise.

For example, Ambien, the popular sleep aid from the Paris-based drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis, sells at a $1.4 billion annual clip in the U.S. alone, says a Harvard Business Review article accompanying the Czeisler conversation piece.

Strong sales of Ambien, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration a dozen years ago, helped Sanofi-Aventis post a 15 percent gain in earnings in its most recent quarter.

Ambien has not been devoid of controversy. In refuting reports of side effects such as sleep walking and binge eating, Sanofi-Aventis said a review of its database indicated no need to change the information it includes with the drug. The analyst ratings on shares of Sanofi-Aventis, which sells scores of other drugs, currently include two "strong buys" and three "holds," according to Thomson Financial.

Sleep, a concern that will never go away, is going to have a growing effect on the workplace and on pharmaceutical sales as well.

Andrew Leckey writes for Tribune Media Services.

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