Vioxx Trial in Australia Details Merck's Deceptive Strategy

A <"">Vioxx trial in Australia has shed new light on the questionable tactics Merck & Co. used to market the dangerous painkiller. The strategies, detailed in an article published by The New York Times, will not surprise anyone who has followed this blog’s Vioxx coverage.

Vioxx was approved for use in the U.S. in 1999, and quickly became a blockbuster for Merck, with annual sales of $2.5 billion. The painkiller was pulled off the market in 2004 after an analysis of patients using Vioxx linked the defective drug to more than 27,000 heart attacks or sudden cardiac deaths in the U.S. from 1999 through 2003. Vioxx was also recalled in more than 80 countries that year.

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The Vioxx recall spawned thousands of product liability lawsuits. In 2007, Merck agreed to settle most U.S. Vioxx claims for $4.85 billion. But the company is still defending lawsuits in other countries, including Australia.

We’ve already reported on one of the most shocking tactics used by Merck to push Vioxx in Australia – the use of a fake medical journal. The journal, published by Elsevier, looked like other peer-reviewed medical journals, but contained only reprinted or summarized articles – all of which presented Merck products, including Vioxx, in a favorable light.

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According to the New York Times, Merck published several issues of the “journal”, entitled Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, between 2002 and 2005. It was presented to doctors as a real medical journal.

The New York Time is also reporting that the Australian trial has revealed that Vioxx sales reps in that country were given a training manual called the “Vioxx Objection Handling Module.” This manual schooled reps in methods of deflecting doctors’ questions about the drug’s side effects, and easing their concerns. According to The New York Times, Merck began distributing the manual in 2001 as studies began to emerge that pointed to the drug’s heart and stroke risks.

The Australian trial has also demonstrated how disillusioned doctors felt when they learned Merck had tried to obscure Vioxx’s safety issues. For example, in an e-mail message dated Oct. 2, 2004, Dr. James V. Bertouch, an Australian physician who had been a member of Merck’s arthritis advisory board, told fellow board member that he felt “like the proverbial mushroom” and asked colleagues how they felt being kept in the dark about Vioxx.

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