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OM in the News: A Pill For Night-Shift Workers?

August 18, 2011

A few months back, my friend CJ took a 9-5 job in a factory and was happy to be back in the ranks of the employed. Shortly after he started, he was told he needed to also pick up a night shift (2-11 am) after his regular shift once a week. We discuss the problems of scheduling workers for varying shifts in Chapter 15, where we note that falling asleep on the job is not at all rare. Sure enough, CJ’s body never could adjust to the constant changes. Coffee used to work for me when I drove double shifts of busses for the CTA in Chicago while in college. But now Businessweek (Aug.11-18, 2011) reports a potential new cure for the 15 million Americans facing “shift work sleep disorder”.

It comes in the form of a new pill made by Cephalon, called Nuvigil, an upgraded version of the blockbuster narcolepsy drug Provigil. With Provigil’s patent protection running out next year, Cephalon is spending big to promote the “new” product. Some doctors, though, worry about a drug solution for staying awake on the job, especially because the pill can be both addictive and carries  side effects like nausea, skin rashes, hallucinations, and depression. “Caffeine is a very good wake-promoting agent, and it’s a lot cheaper”, says a Columbia U. doctor. Adds a Cleveland Clinic physician: “We want to treat the real condition, rather than just papering over the symptoms with a medication that can just keep people awake longer”.

Still, Cephalon’s campaign is working. With the malady affecting one in 4 shift workers, Nuvigil sales are  growing 50% annually for the $12 pill, enough for Israel’s Teva Pharmaceutical to agree to buy Cephalon for $6.2 billion.

Discussion questions:

1. Should employers consider providing Nuvigil to their shift workers?

2. What are the ethical implications of producing such a drug?

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