Merck & Co. Inc. hid the health risks of Vioxx to protect profit, a lawyer representing the family of a man who died after using the pain reliever for 23 days told jurors yesterday in the first federal trial over the drug.

Merck officials knew as early as 1996 that Vioxx users faced an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes – three years before putting the drug on the market, Andy Birchfield, an attorney for the family of Richard “Dicky” Irvin, said yesterday in opening statements in Houston. Irvin died of a heart attack in 2001.

“Merck made a deliberate financial decision not to warn” doctors and consumers about Vioxx risks because the company knew it would lose billions in sales, Birchfield told jurors. Vioxx had $2.5 billion in sales in 2004, about 11 percent of the total for Merck.

The company lost the first Vioxx lawsuit to come to trial in August and won the second this month, convincing a New Jersey jury that the drug did not cause a postal worker’s heart attack. Another victory would bolster Merck’s argument that Vioxx has not harmed short-term users, and would reduce pressure on the company to settle about 6,500 Vioxx lawsuits filed against it.

Irvin, 53, was already at risk for a heart attack because of his weight and clogged arteries, said Philip Beck, a lawyer representing Merck. The company, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., and with major operations in the Philadelphia area, says the drug heightened heart risks only for people who took it for at least 18 months.

Irvin “was in his 50s, he was a little overweight, and he did not get enough cardiac exercise,” Beck said. “Mr. Irvin’s problem was not that he took Vioxx, but that he had coronary artery disease.”

Merck has set aside $675 million to fight Vioxx claims since pulling the drug off the market in September 2004. The company withdrew the pain reliever after its own studies showed that some users faced a five-times-greater risk of heart attack or stroke.

“The evidence will show there was no rush to market,” Beck said, citing the clinical trials Merck conducted on the drug. “Other than aspirin, Vioxx may have the distinction of being the most-studied pain reliever in the history of the world.”

U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon, who is overseeing all Vioxx claims filed in federal courts, has said he expects the Houston case to last three weeks. Fallon moved the trial from his New Orleans courtroom after Hurricane Katrina left much of that city under water.

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