Merck & Co.’s shares fell nearly 10 percent, to the lowest price in almost nine years, after The Wall Street Journal reported that the drug maker tried for years to stop safety concerns from hurting sales of its blockbuster arthritis drug Vioxx. 

The newspaper cited internal Merck documents and marketing materials, including an e-mail from then-research chief Edward Scolnick in 2000, that show the company hid or denied evidence that Vioxx causes heart problems.

Despite the e-mail from Scolnick conceding that an elevated risk of heart attack and stroke was “clearly there,” Merck continued to try to discredit academic researchers critical of the drug, the newspaper reported. It also reported that one training document from Merck listed potentially difficult questions about the drug and stated in capital letters, “DODGE!”

Merck would not comment on the article. Last Friday, it acknowledged some sealed trial documents had been made public, noting that in other similar court cases documents had been leaked to advance the plaintiffs’ lawyers interests.

Merck shares dropped $3.03 to $28.28 in trading on the New York Stock Exchange. That’s the lowest the shares have closed since Nov. 16, 1995.

Investors are trying to estimate the hit Merck may take from lawsuits over Vioxx, which was pulled from the market Sept. 30 after generating $2.5 billion in sales for the Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based company last year. Merck may face less of a threat from Vioxx suits than Wyeth does from its withdrawn fen-phen diet pill combination, one analyst said.

“In the case of fen-phen, there was a clear relation between the drug and the impact on the patient,” said Sena Lund, an analyst at Cathay Financial LLC who has a “neutral” rating on Merck and owns shares. “Here, with Vioxx, the evidence of cardiovascular risk isn’t as easily defined.”

Vioxx was the biggest drug by sales ever withdrawn from the market. When the recall was announced, Merck said the results of a three-year study that linked the drug to heart attacks and strokes were unexpected.

That day, Merck shares fell 27 percent to $33, erasing about $26.8 billion in market value for the company. The stock has fallen almost 13 percent since then.

Prudential Equity Group LLC analyst Timothy M. Anderson downgraded Merck to “neutral” from “overweight” in a note to clients Monday. Anderson wrote that Vioxx probably won’t be as costly to Merck as fen-phen was to Wyeth. He also wrote that he believes there is value in the company’s pipeline but said it is likely to get lost in the negative Vioxx coverage.

Attorney Andy Birchfield, of the law firm Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles P.C. in Montgomery, Ala., said the firm has filed 58 cases against Merck in seven states. The firm is processing more than 3,500 other Vioxx claims.

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