Merck used ‘dodge ball’ on Vioxx questions-lawyer

By Matt Daily

ANGLETON, Texas (Reuters) – Merck & Co. used a game called
“dodge ball” to teach its sales force how to avoid questions
about safety problems with Vioxx, a lawyer for plaintiffs suing
the pharmaceutical giant told a jury on Monday.

The civil case, which pits the family of a deceased Texas
man against the New Jersey-based company, is the first of more
than 3,800 lawsuits filed against the company to come to trial
and charges that Merck hid the risks of heart attacks caused by
the popular painkiller.

In the first day of testimony, plaintiffs lawyer Mark
Lanier showed the jury in southeast Texas a Merck training
document titled “Dodge!” and questioned a top Merck scientist
about the marketing exercise.

“It was a game the marketing people played on how to teach
the marketing people how to answer questions” about Vioxx,
Merck’s chief epidemiologist Nancy Santanello said under
questioning.

But Santanello said the point of the exercise was not avoid
questions about the safety of the drug.

“You cannot win (the game) if you dodge all the questions
… marketing people sometimes name things to make them more
interesting,” she said.

Merck pulled Vioxx off the market in September when it said
it became aware the drug increased the risk of heart attack and
stroke.

Vioxx is the trade name for rofecoxib, which is part of the
class of drugs called NSAIDs. It was touted as a pain and
inflammation reliever that did not cause ulcers or
gastrointestinal bleeding, a side effect of many such
medications.

Robert Ernst died in 2001 after taking Vioxx for about six
months to combat pain in his hand from arthritis. The
59-year-old was an avid runner with no history of heart
problems, his family’s lawyers have said.

Merck has argued in court documents that the heightened
health risks did not occur unless patients took the drug for
more than 18 months, far longer than Ernst had taken it.

The company also said that Vioxx has also not been shown to
raise the risk of heart arrhythmia, which was believed to cause
Ernst’s death.

Lanier also showed a warning letter sent by the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration to Merck in September 2001 that
chastised the company’s safety claims on Vioxx as “simply
incomprehensible given the rate of (heart attacks) and serious
cardiovascular events compared to naproxin,” the drug used in
over-the-counter painkiller Advil.

Santanello said the company took steps to address the
claims in the FDA’s letters.

“My experience at Merck is we take warning letters very
seriously and address them very promptly,” she said.

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