Merck & Co.’s one-time head of marketing testified Tuesday that the company doesn’t “buy off scientists” by giving grants for research or speeches that could favor its drugs. 

David Anstice, now head of Merck’s human health division, testified in a videotaped deposition about Merck’s practice of giving grants to doctors. Plaintiff’s lawyer Mark Lanier contends the practice was part of the company’s aggressive effort to promote favorable buzz about the multi-billion-dollar selling painkiller Vioxx by bringing skeptical doctors into the fold.

“You’re offering them presents to try to get them on your side, aren’t you?” Mr. Lanier asked Mr. Anstice.

“Merck does not buy off scientists,” Mr. Anstice responded, noting that such grants have “specific medical and scientific purposes.” He also said Merck’s objective was to bring doctors “to a balanced position.”

The exchange came during the first of more than 4,200 Vioxx-related state and federal lawsuits to go before a jury. The plaintiff alleges Merck knew Vioxx could be dangerous years before the Whitehouse Station, N.J., pharmaceutical giant pulled it from the market last year when a study showed it could double risk of heart attacks or strokes if taken for 18 months or longer.

The case on trial in Angleton, Texas, about 40 miles south of Houston, accuses Merck of minimizing safety risks while relentlessly marketing the drug. Merck contends the company acted responsibly, disclosed research and voluntarily swept Vioxx from the market when the long-term study questioned its safety.

In his deposition, Mr. Anstice acknowledged that Merck received a warning letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998 about misleading drug promotions. The letter said the FDA was concerned that promotions “demonstrate a continuing pattern and practice” of corporate behavior to avoid complying with rules about drug-risk information.

“That was an important statement which we took seriously at the time,” Mr. Anstice said. “I believe that we addressed these issues appropriately at the time.”

In 2001, the FDA warned Merck about glitzy television ads for Vioxx—including one featuring Olympic skater Dorothy Hamill—that failed to alert consumers to a 2000 study that showed Vioxx could cause five times as many heart attacks as the older painkiller naproxen, sold under the brand name Aleve.

Nancy Santanello, Merck’s top epidemiologist, testified earlier that the FDA approved those ads before they aired.

The plaintiff, Carol Ernst, sued Merck over the death of her husband, Robert, who died in his sleep at age 59 in 2001 after taking Vioxx for eight months to alleviate pain in his hands. Mr. Lanier, her lawyer, contends Mr. Ernst’s fatal arrhythmia—or irregular heartbeat—was caused by a Vioxx-induced heart attack that happened too quickly for his heart to show damage.

Merck’s legal team says no evidence of a heart attack exists and that no studies link Vioxx to arrhythmia, so the drug can’t be responsible.



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