STATEWIDE Oregon’s lead role in a record-breaking settlement with Merck & Co. over deceptive marketing for the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx represents the latest skirmish in an ongoing campaign against Big Pharma that has earned the state more than $8.5 million.
After leading a three-year, 30-state investigation into deceptive advertisements downplaying the health risks associated with Vioxx, Oregon received $2.8 million of the record $58 million paid out by Merck. The judgment banned Merck from manipulating data when marketing to physicians, “ghost writing” articles for medical journals and failing to disclose conflicts of interest among doctors who study and promote drugs on behalf of the company.
The Vioxx settlement reflects growing concerns over how drug companies hook consumers on prescription drugs. Drug giants have poured billions into “demand creation” since the federal government loosened rules prohibiting “direct-to-consumer” advertising in 1997. In 2007 Oregon was the lead state in an $8 million settlement against Bayer for minimizing the dangers of Baycol, and also was in on a $19.5 million settlement against Purdue Pharma regarding OxyContin.
State officials cannot comment about current cases involving major pharmaceutical firms, but Oregon’s campaign against Big Pharma is clearly far from finished. Leading the way has been assistant attorney general David Hart, who worked in health care prior to pursuing consumer law and is married to a pharmacist. Hart has served as lead investigator and negotiator on all of Oregon’s major drug company cases. “The money we’ve gotten in these settlements gets put to good use, but these cases aren’t about the money,” he says, “they’re about the rules we create and the light that we shed on these practices so that we can change them.”
Ken Johnson, vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said in a prepared statement that drug companies “are committed to providing accurate, educational information to patients and health professionals about their medicines.”