Ballistic Over Botox

Hollywood housewife Irena Medavoy (search) claims her treatments with wrinkle-reducer Botox ruined her health. Though her claim seems unlikely, we’ll probably never know whether or not it has merit. A jury may decide the claim’s fate at a trial tentatively scheduled for next February.

In the meantime, Medavoy seems bent on crusading against Botox (search) -- a course of action that could wind up unjustifiably denying many the benefits of the treatment.

Botox is a complex of proteins produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which contains the same toxin that causes food poisoning. Botox has been used for the last 20 years to treat many chronic neurological disorders.

More recently, Botox has been used for cosmetic purposes. Injecting small doses of Botox into the forehead area interferes with the muscles’ ability to contract, reducing and eliminating existing frown lines.

Medavoy, trophy wife of Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy (search), alleges that dermatologist-to-the-stars Dr. Arnie Klein (search) treated her migraine headaches with Botox on four visits from May 2001 to March 2002.

Use of Botox to treat migraines is “off-label” (search) -- meaning that such use has not been officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But physicians frequently prescribe medications for off-label uses as such applications are discovered. Botox was first reported in the medical literature to be effective with migraines in 1998.

Medavoy claims the treatments caused her “life-altering and unrelenting migraine headaches; upper respiratory problems; fever; weakness; severe muscle pain; hives over much of her body; and other ailments.” She claims that she was bedridden for many months and that although some symptoms have eased, others have continued.

In an interview with Vanity Fair last May, Medavoy melodramatically exclaimed, “I feel like Jane Fonda in 'The China Syndrome.' This is my Three Mile Island.” (I wonder if she knows that no one was actually harmed by the Three Mile Island (search) nuclear accident.)

Medavoy, in any event, has definitely gone nuclear with her efforts to smear Botox.

In addition to inciting the lengthy Vanity Fair attack on Botox, Medavoy also persuaded old friend Maria Shriver to follow up with another hit piece on "Dateline NBC." Much more media coverage has ensued.

The problem with Medavoy’s fury is that she’s blown the situation out of all proportion.

Botox was used to treat more than a million people last year and has been used in millions more over the past 20 years for a variety of conditions. Medavoy, though, seems to be the only one -- or, at most, one of a very few -- going ballistic with allegations of health problems related to Botox.

Further, even if Medavoy did experience an adverse reaction from her treatment -- and all medical treatments pose some risk -- there is no evidence that Botox causes the long-term side effects that she alleges.

Whatever happened to Medavoy is not happening to the vast majority of patients treated with Botox.

Medavoy, nevertheless, seems bent on destroying Botox.

She -- or her lawyers -- even launched a Web site apparently to troll for others who think they’ve been harmed by Botox treatment -- possibly trying to gin up a class action lawsuit against Botox manufacturer Allergan Inc (search).

The danger in this tactic is that nothing scares pharmaceutical and medical products companies like expensive class action lawsuits and bad publicity -- even though of dubious merit. Faced with such adversity, manufacturers sometimes decide to withdraw from the market otherwise useful and popular products and treatments.

Over the last 30 years, birth control devices, diet drugs, morning sickness medication, and surgical implants have been withdrawn from the market, not because they posed significant or unforeseen health risks, but simply because manufacturers weren’t willing to risk the expense and bad press of class action litigation.

We rely on our pharmaceutical and medical products industry for many innovations that make us healthier, and that make us look and feel better.

Medavoy may deserve her day in court, but her self-absorbed campaign against Botox jeopardizes everyone else’s access to medical progress.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

Respond to the Writer