Merck & Co. has agreed to pay out a record breaking settlement of $4.85 million to settle over 26,000 state and federal lawsuits involving patients who used Vioxx, a popular pain reliever.
While this is one of the largest civil settlements in history, it represents only a fraction of the company’s potential liability, which experts believe is between $10 billion and $25 billion.
Vioxx was voluntarily removed from the market in 2004 following a study that showed prolonged use of the drug increased the risk of fatal heart attacks and caused respiratory and liver problems. One year later the drug was re-approved by the FDA, but with additional warnings.
The blockbuster painkiller was associated with a doubling of heart attack risk — 0.4% in people taking naproxen, and .1% in people taking Vioxx. Those numbers are tiny, but spread them over a few million prescriptions and the consequences are serious: the FDA estimated that Vioxx killed about 30,000 people between 1999 and 2003.
Merck contends that the elevated risks are misleading. Vioxx wasn’t dangerous, but rather, naproxen protected against heart attacks. However, when post-marketing studies were conducted, Merck dragged its feet and falsified data. Most people feel that for that reason alone they are getting what they deserve.