Tough Day for Merck
First, as Art points out this afternoon, two recent articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association charge that the pharmaceutical giant withheld data on the damaging effects of its painkiller Vioxx. The blockbuster drug was pulled from the shelves in 2004 after it was found to be a cardiovascular risk.
Now, Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, is all riled up and pushing for greater transparency from the pharmaceutical industry.
These reports reveal just how far a drug maker might go to market its product and try to bury information that might hurt sales even when that information directly affected the health and safety of the people taking their medicine. Revealing this kind of activity is very important in building pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to regulate, not accommodate drug makers. These new reports also underscore the value of transparency in making industry more accountable to the public.
In a letter to Merck (pdf), the Iowa Republican all but accuses the company of cheating federal health programs out of a billion dollars in Vioxx purchases.
Besides incurring over $1 billion dollars in costs to our federal programs for this drug, it turned out that VIOXX was also causing heart attacks. Merck, with knowledge of the increased risk of heart attacks associated with VIOXX, proceeded to negotiate with FDA for label changes, while at the same time initiating an aggressive campaign to sell as much of the drug as possible. In fact, one FDA safety officer determined that VIOXX negatively affected tens of thousands of patients who took the drug.
Now we are learning that VIOXX not only increased the risk of heart attacks-it seems that it caused the death of certain patients. Had the federal government, namely the FDA known of this risk in 2001, instead of 2003, I am confident that the federal government would not have paid Merck $1billion dollars for the drug.
Grassley is no stranger to the topic. As Finance chairman four years ago, he led the investigative charge into Merck’s deceptive marketing and research practices surrounding Vioxx. Still, it’s no easy task taking on the pharmaceutical industry, even for a powerful guy like Grassley. As the Center for Responsive Politics pointed out last week, drug makers gave more money to Washington’s lawmakers than any other lobby in the country last year.
The latest Vioxx revelation will test just how much influence that cash can buy.