March 6, 2006

Merck Tried to Hide Vioxx Risk: Attorney

ATLANTIC CITY, New Jersey -- Merck & Co. knew its painkiller Vioxx significantly increased the risk of heart attack but worked to hide the evidence from doctors, patients and the scientific community to boost profits, a lawyer for a former Vioxx user argued on Monday.

In opening arguments in the latest trial over the withdrawn drug, Mark Lanier, an attorney for a man who blames Vioxx for his 2003 heart attack, said the company was driven by marketing rather than science and was determined to make Vioxx into a blockbuster drug with sales of at least $1 billion a year.

Lanier, who won the first case against the company last year in Texas, accused five Merck executives of hiding the truth about Vioxx.

In his opening statement lasting about an hour and 15 minutes, the lawyer repeatedly used a graphic of man standing near the edge of a cliff, and claimed that Vioxx pushed users over the edge of the cliff, when combined with other cardiovascular risk factors such as age, weight and cholesterol.

"When you take Vioxx and you are walking close to the edge of the cliff, you are a walking time bomb," Lanier said.

This trial combines two cases and for the first time involves long-term Vioxx users. The plaintiffs are Lanier client Thomas Cona, a 59-year-old New Jersey businessman who says he took Vioxx for 22 months before his June 2003 heart attack, and John McDarby, 77, who blames four years of Vioxx use for his heart attack in April 2004.

The length of Vioxx use is critical in this case as Merck has said it pulled the $2.5 billion a year drug from the market only after a study showed using the drug continuously for at least 18 months doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke.

In earlier trials the company argued that there was no evidence that short-term Vioxx use increased heath risks.