But this news really isn't about Vioxx -- it's about the safety of pharmaceuticals and the priorities of the FDA in protecting public health. People are finally beginning to ask the question: why was Vioxx approved and heavily marketed through direct-to-consumer advertising when its safety wasn't proven? How is it that we can find out years after the drug has been introduced and promoted and heavily prescribed by doctors that it actually causes another chronic disease?
This certainly isn't news to those of you who are regular readers of this site. We've been talking about the hidden dangers of prescription drugs for years. As you well know, virtually all prescription drugs are fraudulently studied, approved, and marketed in order to generate profits. Even in this case, as Vioxx has been pulled from the market, it has generated billions of dollars in sales for Merck. In fact, in 2003 alone, Vioxx generated a reported $2.5 billion in sales, or about 11% of the company's revenue.
This is a high-priced drug that has been heavily hyped and marketed. It has been pushed through advertising to consumers and an additional $500 million in marketing efforts directly to doctors and clinics. As a result, doctors tended to perceive this drug as being a high-tech new drug that was better than the old, proven anti-inflammatory drugs, and thus they prescribed it in huge numbers.
And yet, even as this drug has now been found to cause heart disease, strokes, and other cardiovascular disorders, and now that it is being pulled from the market, the drug company Merck has made out quite well. It was able to get a drug approved without adequate testing, it was able to market that drug through direct-to-consumer advertising (and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on influencing doctors), and it was able to generate literally billions of dollars in sales from that drug over a period of several years, even while the drug was potentially harming or even killing patients due to its fatal side effects. That spells a big "win" for Merck. Mission accomplished!
Today, in response, Merck said that it's pulling the drug and it will reimburse people for whatever unused drugs they haven't taken yet. Is that the best that Merck can do? Are pharmaceutical companies not going to be held responsible for the widespread harm they cause to customers who take their drugs? Why is it that Merck thinks it can get a drug approved, market it heavily, and generate billions of dollars in profits, and then walk away from the table as soon as people start dying from it, or in this case, experiencing increased risk of cardiovascular disease?
Why isn't Merck helping to pay for heart tests for some of the patients who have been taking this drug? Why isn't Merck offering not only a refund on the unused drugs, but a refund on all the drugs that people have taken over the years?
Keep in mind, that's the kind of thing that the FDA has required nutritional supplement manufacturers to do when they didn't like what the company was marketing to the public. In one case, the FDA went after a company called Lane Labs that sold an anti-cancer nutraceutical, and in a court proceeding, the FDA managed to get the judge to order the company to not only refund holders of existing inventory, but to pay back all the people who had ever purchased the drug from the very first day it was available.
Why isn't Merck being held to the same standard by the FDA? Shouldn't Merck be mailing refund checks to all the patients and doctors and health insurance companies who have paid for this drug over the last few years? If this pharmaceutical company has generated profits hand over fist from selling a drug that turns out to actually be harmful to people's health, shouldn't it be financially held responsible for doing so? Well, apparently not, but you can bet there will be some class-action lawsuits here that will attempt to bring Merck to justice.