(NaturalNews) Drug giant Merck & Co., creator of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine Gardasil, has been ordered by a federal judge in Boston, Mass., to fork over $321 million in criminal fines for illegally marketing Vioxx, a dangerous painkiller drug that was pulled from the market in 2004 because taking the drug doubles a patient's risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
According to reports, Merck pleaded guilty to charges of illegally promoting Vioxx for rheumatoid arthritis before it was approved for such use, even after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reprimanded the company for doing this in 2001. Immediately after Vioxx was approved by the FDA in 1999 for treating acute pain, Merck reportedly began promoting its use among patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
The decision comes just months after Merck agreed to pay more than $600 million to the federal government, 43 states, and the District of Columbia to settle various other suits pertaining to the company's illegal marketing tactics. Though Merck did not admit guilt in all of those cases, the drug maker's willingness to pay nearly $1 billion in combined fines for criminal and illegal marketing was still accepted by the court.
"I'm certainly going to accept this agreement because I think it's in the public interest," said U.S. District Judge Patti Saris who accepted the plea. "I hope the size of this settlement and the fact that all these cases are being pressed by the federal and state governments -- the 44 states' attorneys general -- will be a signal that this isn't acceptable conduct."
$1 billion is nothing compared to the more than $12 billion Merck generated from Vioxx
But $1 billion is just a drop in the bucket for Merck, since Vioxx generated roughly $2.5 billion in sales during the years that it was on the market. Collectively, this translates into more than $12 billion worth of revenues for Merck during Vioxx's life cycle, which is a hefty amount that contrasts sharply to the relatively paltry $1 billion it has agreed to pay.
Besides a few other incidents where Merck has paid out a few million dollars here and there, the company has largely gotten off scot-free with Vioxx. None of Merck's corporate executives are being held personally responsible for the thousands of former Vioxx users that were injured by the drug, and they are not being held criminally liable for their company's illegal marketing of the drug.
So in the end, what these criminal and civil fines amount to is nothing more than a drug industry payoff to the federal government for Merck's illegal activity. Merck still made off with at least $10 billion of revenues from Vioxx, and the federal government and a few individuals have received a few million dollars in the process. And so it goes in the criminal cartel that is the drug industry's cozy relationship with Big Pharma.