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Merck Short On Moral Values

Nov 28, 2004 | New York Daily News As Democrats continue to search heaven and Earth for a moral values issue they can call their own, I have just the prescription: Why not start with the immoral behavior of giant drug companies such as Merck that continue to sacrifice the health of the public on the altar of higher and higher profits?

According to the Senate testimony by Dr. David Graham, associate director for science and medicine in the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Drug Safety, as many as 55,000 patients may have died as a result of taking Vioxx. Shocking. But not to Merck.

The most loathsome aspect of the Vioxx affair is the way Merck used a $500 million marketing campaign to persuade more than 20 million Americans to pop its noxious little pill before it withdrew the painkiller from the shelves in September. Company executives continued to run these ads long after they knew that there was big trouble brewing. There ought to be a special place in hell for corporations that show such a wanton disregard for human life.

How many times do we have to travel down this deadly path?

The Vioxx affair is certainly giving me a profound sense of drug company déjà vu, with the tragic stories of Baycol, Rezulin and Duract still fresh in my mind. After each case come the inevitable calls for accountability and promises to reform the system promises that are then forgotten until the next killer drug hits the headlines.

During the hearings on the Vioxx scandal, Graham, while citing an additional five drugs that he feels pose a danger to the public, said that the nation's compromised drug oversight system had left Americans "virtually defenseless" against killer drugs and warned that we are facing "the single greatest drug safety catastrophe in the history of this country or the history of the world."

And you thought our biggest problem with pharmaceuticals was President Bush refusing to allow us to get cheap drugs from Canada, which he justifies because of concerns about the safety of Canadian drugs.

So why don't things ever change, even as the death toll mounts? As always, the answer can be found by following the money. The big pharmaceutical companies continue to be the 800-pound gorillas of American politics their power stemming from a muscular combination of lobbying ($150 million a year), campaign contributions (close to $50 million doled out to federal candidates over the past four years) and powerful friends in very high places (Don Rumsfeld was formerly CEO of drug industry powerhouse G.D. Searle, and Mitch Daniels, the former White House budget director and now governor-elect of Indiana, was a senior vice president at Eli Lilly).

In a 2000 E-mail, Merck's chief of research called Vioxx's propensity to cause heart attacks and strokes "a shame." Something his company clearly lacks. Of course, the real shame is that we continue to have a regulatory system in which corporate greed, political timidity and a culture of cronyism have rendered the public good a quaint afterthought.

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