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Lawyer says we're good guys

Bad Medicine

Nov 20, 2004 Drug giant Merck pulled its painkiller Vioxx because it increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Now the company may face thousands of lawsuits.

Are lawyers unjustly driving Merck toward bankruptcy?

For years, trial lawyers have suspected that the painkiller Vioxx was extremely dangerous. Merck was well aware of the serious heart-related risks associated with its second-biggest-selling drug. In fact, almost every study involving Vioxx suggested that the drug presented an unacceptably high risk, yet Merck chose to ignore these findings, as well as warnings made by numerous respected medical experts.

Had it not been for the serious economic threat posed by trial lawyers dedicated to the field of pharmaceutical litigation, Vioxx probably would still be on the market today.

Clearly, trial lawyers are not the problem.

Vioxx is the latest of 12 prescription drugs pulled from the market in the past few years because of dangerous side effects such as liver and kidney failure; heart problems; stroke and suicide.

Prior to their withdrawal, millions of people were placed at risk every day these drugs remained on the market.

The drug companies are the problem.

Slick marketing campaigns pour hundreds of millions of dollars into generating a demand by consumers. Drug companies have also created a serious ethical problem within the medical profession by giving millions of dollars in gifts and fees to doctors who recommend or prescribe their drugs.

Food and Drug Administration warnings on misleading advertising are either ignored or grudgingly complied with. Damaging information is routinely withheld from the FDA and the public, and the FDA often approves new drugs on the basis of applications that omit negative information.

In the case of Vioxx, Merck hired Dorothy Hamill and launched a $500 million advertising campaign set to The Rascals' 1968 hit "Beautiful Morning."

According to our records, Merck trained its sales staff in a program called "Dodge Ball Vioxx" to handle doctors' safety concerns (called "obstacles") by explaining away or "dodging" concerns. Merck never stopped seeking broader approval for Vioxx. On Sept. 8, it obtained approval for Vioxx's use in children as young as 2.

Even the study that resulted in Merck withdrawing Vioxx from the market just weeks later, on Sept. 30, was intended to demonstrate that it could be used to prevent the recurrence of certain bowel polyps.

Now the trial lawyers who are seeking to hold Merck responsible for thousands of injuries and deaths allegedly caused by Vioxx are under fire for their efforts to identify and mobilize victims of this latest corporate disgrace.

The criticism is unfounded. Trial lawyers in personal injury and death cases are the only professionals who receive no fee for services unless a recovery is obtained for their clients.

My law firm filed its first Vioxx case more than three years ago. Our only regret is that Merck has been able to continue putting profits ahead of the public's safety, health and well-being all these years.

Parker is senior partner in New York's Parker & Waichman.

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