It was revealed this week in documents released by Merck over the Vioxx debacle that we were all scammed — patients, doctors, stockholders and legitimate drug researchers.
If you aren’t familiar with the Merck and Vioxx scandal, let me bring you up to date.
Vioxx was a drug released to the marketplace in 1999. It was cheered loudly by those who suffer pain from arthritis or other chronic pain-producing maladies. My mother, husband and daughter were among the millions of people who were beneficiaries of its relief, and swore by the drug.
… until a few years later when people with heart problems who were also taking Vioxx began to die. Enough of them died that in a very public spectacle (as it should have been), Vioxx was pulled off the market to save lives.
Pulling it from the market most certainly saved lives. However (and this is a big however) it also meant that all those people who had finally found relief from their pain were left without that relief. Today — years later — my daughter and husband have never found anything that relieves their pain as well.
As you can imagine, many questions arose. How could this drug go to market if it was unsafe? Why did the FDA approve such a drug?
The quick answer to those questions is — money. Merck made billions from the sale of Vioxx before their scam was uncovered. The FDA makes their big money from the big pharma manufacturers looking for approval. (The last figures I saw put the FDA’s budget at 51% supplied by approval seekers.)
A year or so later, it was discovered that Merck knew all about the problems Vioxx caused for people with heart conditions. But they didn’t reveal those particular studies to the FDA when they applied for approval. That decision cost too many people their lives — and now it has cost Merck money, too.
Since then, huge lawsuits have been won by patients, lost by Merck. Families of those who died, and those who were harmed, will now begin collecting billions from Merck (as will the lawyers, don’t forget.) In no way does that money make up for the loss of a loved one, but it certainly sends the message that scamming the public over drugs is unacceptable.
So now it’s time to learn how Merck pulled off its scam, and how they fooled the FDA, which brings us back to today’s report. It turns out that Merck hired medical writers — not the researchers and not the doctors — to write the reports that went to the FDA. Then they got prominent doctors and researchers to add their names to the submission. It’s called ghostwriting.
This means that Merck not only scammed and manipulated doctors and patients and the FDA, but it manipulated the medical journals in which the supportive research was published. Evidently nothing stands in the way of that profit. But then, of course, empowered patients already know that.
As you know, I like to bottom line these things to help patients. I’m fully aware that one voice can’t make much of a dent in heinous, profit-making activities. (Don’t get me wrong — I am not at all against profit. On the contrary, I own my own consulting business. I believe in capitalism! I just don’t believe in profit based on detriment to others.)
For individual patients, there are a few things we can do to protect ourselves from these kinds of later-discovered problems. We don’t want to be victims of drugs that have been approved by lies and deception. So here are some suggestions:
1. If your doctor prescribes a drug new to you ask if there are reports of any problems with it. You’ll want to make yourself very familiar with any drug prescribed — you can do that in a number of places including the FDA Orange Book, and you’ll want to do that before you take that drug.
2. Ask your doctor, or the pharmacist, how long the drug has been on the market. If it has been around less than two years, ask if there is an alternative. You don’t want to be one of the guinea pigs taking that drug if you can avoid it. Once the drug has been around for two years or more, it has a track record that you can review to decide — with your doctor — if it’s the drug for you.
3. If you invest in stocks, then consider NOT investing in companies like Merck and others who are willing to put lives at risk by adding dangerous drugs to the marketplace. Merck investors who owned the stock when the Vioxx scandal was exposed took BIG hits to their stock. Why feed those people who are so willing to let others die?
The shame about Vioxx is that I believe Merck could have done very well with the drug. Had it not covered up the heart-attack inducing problems, had it come clean about those problems to begin with and recommended the drug for people in pain who did not have contraindications because of heart problems, then those millions of other people (including my mom, daughter and husband) would still be finding relief from their pain today.
It makes me think fines and lost lawsuits just aren’t enough. Why isn’t anyone talking about prison time for the perpetrators?