Last week, Merck agreed to settle a Missouri consumer class-action suit, which claimed the company violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act when it promoted and sold its pain reliever Vioxx. Merck removed Vioxx from shelves in 2004 due to evidence that it increased the risk of heart attacks. According to the Justice Department, Merck began marketing Vioxx as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis shortly after being approved by FDA as a painkiller in May 1999. However, FDA had not approved it for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis until 2002. The settlement is reportedly for $220 million and Merck agreed to pay validated claims as well as approved attorneys’ fees, and settlement notice costs.
Merck’s press release on the settlement didn’t mention any admission of wrongdoing. In a company press release, Bruce N. Kuhlik, Merck’s executive vice-president and general counsel, said “This agreement is in the best interest of the company and its shareholders. It reduces the uncertainty of litigation and ongoing defense costs, and helps us to remain focused on bringing forward innovative products and services for our customers.” This is one of several recent examples of off-label drug promotion. Are the millions pharma companies end up paying in lawsuit payouts worth sidestepping FDA rules?