In the ongoing trial in Angleton, Texas, in the Vioxx lawsuit filed by Carol Ernst, her attorney Mark Lanier has painted Merck as a company driven by greed – profits at any cost, even deaths of over 50,000 Americans and an estimated 140,000 personal injuries. So is Merck really such a bad company while it says “Where patients come first?”
Lanier argues that Merck became a greedy company in 1994 when Raymond Gilmartin took the reins of the company. Pharmaceutical companies that do a lot of research work have traditionally been headed by scientists. But Gilmartin had no background in drugs. And as the chart below shows, the company embarked on an aggressive growth path and the focus was on the stock price even if it meant taking huge risks and playing with the lives of patients. After the mishandling of recall of Vioxx, Gilmartin was fired. Gilmartin also relied on politican connections with Washington Republicans to make sure that no one touched Merck. He was a big contributor to President Bush as well.
Lanier also accuses Merck of hiding risks of Vioxx. Since the Vioxx controversy erupted last year, enormous evidence has emerged that not only did Merck not disclose the dangers of Vioxx, it also used data selectively to blow up the benefits and downplay the risks.
Lanier points out that Merck spent a billion dollar to market Vioxx. A little background on the pharma industry is going to be helpful here. Due to the high cost of doing business in the US, drug development cost approaches $850 million from concept to commercialization. That is why when a drug achieves a billion dollar in sales it is considered a “blockbuster.” Hence, for Merck to spend a billion dollars on marketing alone was somewhat unusual, but it also showed how Merck was able to push a dangerous drug to doctors and patients through slick marketing. Merck had an army of almost 5,000 salespeople for Vioxx whose job was to sell it at any cost and avoid any questions about the safety of the drug.
Finally, Lanier also accuses doctors who often get treated like celebrities by drug firms so that they would prescribe their medicines. That is exactly what Merck was doing. It not only intimidated Vioxx critics but made sure that doctors were so well treated by its salespeople that they would simply prescribe Vioxx and ask no questions.
More revelations are likely in the case as the trial continues for several weeks.