During the 40 years my Father practiced medicine, he refused to prescribe any drug that had been on the market for less than 10 years. He didn’t trust the FDA to objectively assess whether a drug was truly safe before it was approved for use by the general public.
His caution in writing prescriptions proved wise. He never lost a patient due to complications from a drug he himself prescribed.
Unfortunately, most conventional doctors are much more liberal with prescribing drugs. No doubt this is a contributing reason for the 100,000+ deaths that occur every single year due to adverse drug reactions.
Vioxx, manufactured by Merck, is perhaps the most highly publicized example of a drug that should never have been approved and yet managed to stay on the market for 5 long years. Hawked by celebrities like Olympic gold medalists Dorothy Hamill and Bruce Jenner, the rise and fall of Vioxx illustrates how a drug company’s masterful public relations and aggressive marketing combined with a passively negligent FDA can contribute billions of dollars annually to the bottom line.
Once considered a blockbuster arthritis drug, Vioxx was marketed in more than 80 countries and raked in worldwide sales of $2.5 billion in 2003 shortly before it was globally removed from the market in 2004. From 1999-2003, Vioxx is estimated to have caused more than 27,000 heart attacks or sudden cardiac deaths in America alone.
Despite the death and destruction wreaked by Vioxx around the world, the pharmaceutical industry is no more motivated today than it was 10 years ago to be thorough and cautious when assessing the safety of a new drug being brought to market.
It is quite simply a more profitable business decision for companies like Merck to cut corners when assessing a drug’s safety and lean on the FDA to get drugs approved quickly because even when thousands upon thousands of people are harmed or killed as was the case with Vioxx, the damages from lawsuits are trivial compared with the revenue earned by the drug in the years it manages to stay on the market.
Payouts to victims or victims’ families are nothing more than a minor cost of doing business that pales in comparison to the blockbuster revenues to be earned for shareholders and executive bonuses.
Case in point.
Last month, Merck reached a settlement with the 1700 Australians who claimed Vioxx gave them heart problems or killed their loved ones.
The settlement amount?
A paltry $540,000, which translates to $314 per claimant! In addition, the settlement stipulates that no future claims could be brought against Merck for the drug – even by those who were not part of the current proceedings!
Even more shocking, Gerard Dalton, representing the claimants, said that most claimants will never receive a dime. He said that only 200-300 of the 1700 claimants would meet the “eligibility requirements” necessary to receive compensation.
Even if a claimant proves eligible for payout, the settlement amount is so low that the maximum that will be received is $2000 for living claimants and $1500 for the families of dead victims.
Even the judge responsible for approving the settlement questioned its fairness.
Federal Court Justice Christopher Jessup said the agreement did not take into account individual circumstances and may not be fair to those who had a stronger case against the drug company.
“I want to know what’s really lying around and whether people’s interests or rights are being affected.
I must say that I’m having difficulty coming to grips with why the settlement should be regarded as fair and reasonable in the interests of all group members … without any attempt to make a distinction between those who would be more likely to establish causation.”
Justice Jessup also questions how the settlement could be binding on people who were not even involved in the current proceedings and said the condition did not strike him “as being a very obvious kind of justice”.
There is no doubt that this settlement, if you can even call it that, is in no way justice or adequate compensation for the Australians who suffered or died from using Vioxx.
But what a sweet deal for Merck. With slaps on the wrist like this, you can be sure more drug debacles as bad or worse than Vioxx loom on the horizon. Financial remuneration to victims represents no deterrent for unethical or even criminal behavior from the pharmaceutical industry.
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
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