In order to survive in the increasingly lucrative and competitive phramaceutical business, big drug companies need to have several billion dollar “blockbuster” drugs on the market at any one time. This has forced many to market their products ever more aggressively—and to pay less attention to their potential risks. In the case of Merck’s painkiller, Vioxx, this had disastrous and lethal results. Critics estimate that 140,000 Americans suffered heart attacks and strokes as a result of taking the drug during the seven years it was on the market.
There have been numerous scandals involving drug companies in recent years, but what makes this case unique is that Merck, instead of settling compensation claims out of court to avoid negative publicity, decided to fight every case—and so we have over 20m legal documents, telling the warts-and-all story of Vioxx: what Merck’s staff were telling eachother, but not necessarily anyone else. Jim Giles reports.