Monday, August 22, 2005


They came up with a cute new marketing gimmick -- the name Vioxx, with two exes. Very cute.

A jury in Texas says they did some marketing things they shouldn't have, though.

We're talking about Merck -- the drug company.

For instance, they targeted doctors that were not friendly to Vioxx to either bring them into the fold, or else to neutralize or discredit them. "Neutralize" meant get them to change their mind, said the head of Merck's epidemiology department. Notes subpoenaed from her department suggest that "neutralization" may take the form of payoffs and bribes -- or if you want to be polite, research grants -- to doctors. She said such grants are common.

Her definition of "discredit" was somewhat murkier.

The marketing department reportedly taught reps to handle antagonistic doctors with drills called "Dodge Ball". But the company representative said this doesn't mean they dodge questions.

The marketing department also downplayed or misrepresented Vioxx safety concerns in expensive and aggressive advertising campaigns, according to FDA warning letters exposed in the trial.

Now the jury in a Texas case says Vioxx was the cause of death for a 59-year-old produce manager at a Wal-Mart in Fort Worth. He wasn't a couch potato. He ran marathons and worked as a personal trainer. Then he died. After he took the Vioxx. So the jury says Merck needs to pay a lot of money to the man's survivors -- about a quarter of a million dollars.

Thus went the first of hundreds or perhaps thousands of lawsuits against Merck, being generated by survivors of people who died using the drug, which vascillated on and off the market over a period of a few years as the company ran roughshod over multiple evidences of heart trouble in users.

The risk of heart attack more than doubled when Vioxx was taken, according to a Swiss study in 2000. Swiss researchers say this should have caused Merck to pull the drug at that time.

Those who did that study say the data was ignored. They not only attacked Merck. They also attacked "drug licensing authorities" (read FDA in our case) who "did not evaluate the data available on Vioxx sooner."

This writer is normally something of a free market animal, and detests the idea of lawsuits dragging down hard-working business people and crashing commerce. But in the case of drug companies such suits are more than justified. We've seen the evidence in the world of SSRI psychiatric drugs and drugs like Ritalin -- products that reap obscene profits, which are used by the drug companies to counter or cover up the destructive effects of the drugs.

Today's Robber Barons are Big Pharma. But the world is catching on. Something tells us this is only a little first step in the avalanche to come. You can't fool all of the people all of the time.