A ruling by the Federal Court in Melbourne said a drug like Vioxx can lead to heart attacks and is "not fit t be on the market." The ruling is a breakthrough for hundreds of Australians waiting for compensation and gives hope for payouts to UK victims.
Vioxx was introduced in 2000 by the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co, Inc.. It was used by about 80 million people worldwide, yet it was withdrawn from the market in 2004 due to thousands of complaints and even some deaths, mainly due to heart attacks that occurred after some people took the pills.
Subsequently, class-action lawsuits were filed in several countries, including Canada and the U.S., and in most cases the company settled such cases with large amounts of money.
According to the Las Vegas Sun, the company has made its final payment in the U.S., dolling out $4.1 billion into a fund created to settle the tens of thousands of claims concerning Vioxx.
Even with the problems incurred by multiple lawsuits and compensation payouts, the company is doing well financially, as one can see from its earnings report published on itswebsite.
At first, Vioxx was regarded as something of a wonder drug for arthritis patients because, unlike other anti-inflammatory medicines it did not cause stomach problems. That perception changed among doctors and the public once the first strokes and heart attacks were linked to the pills. Soon after, Merck had to mount the biggest and most expensive recall in pharmaceutical history.
According to The Independent in the UK, says Merck went to great lengths to promote the drug and quash criticism when it first hit the market:
The 48-day trial heard colourful evidence about the lengths to which Merck went to promote Vioxx in Australia before it was launched in 2000. Scores of doctors were wined and dined by sales representatives at the country's most expensive restaurants, entertaining them at Sydney's Taronga Zoo and the Melbourne Aquarium.
Merck also drew up a "hit list" of doctors and academics who needed to be "neutralised" or "discredited", according to company emails, because they had criticised the drug. It paid nurses to rifle patient records for potential candidates for Vioxx, and it persuaded the world's largest medical publisher, Elsevier, to produce several issues of what appeared to be an independent scientific journal, without disclosing that it was funded by Merck. The company, which plans to appeal against yesterday's ruling, settled with thousands of US litigants in 2007, at a cost of nearly US$5bn. It made no admission of guilt, and has indicated it will fight legal action everywhere else.
The Australian ruling may also affect UK residents wanting to press for compensation, something that has not been possible up to now because of twists in the British legal system that do not allow such claims to be aired in court.
In Australia, the Federal Court judge, Christopher Jessup, was totally clear in his judgement, saying Vioxx had "about doubled the risk of heart attack" and that it "was not reasonably fit for the purpose of being used for the relief of arthritic pain."