Trouble is brewing deep in the heart of Texas for drug giant Merck, maker of Vioxx, the blockbuster pain reliever that turned out to be a killer: as many as 60,000 people may have died as a result of taking it. 

The first of thousands of wrongful death and injury lawsuits started yesterday in the Lone Star State, seeking to prove that Merck continued to aggressively market Vioxx even though the company’s own studies showed that it greatly increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

As we’ve seen, juries are unpredictable (ask O.J. and Michael Jackson), and the Texas suit may not be the best test case, but there can be little doubt that Merck should finally pay the price for sacrificing the health of the public on the altar of higher profits.

And well it should. The company’s actions throughout the entire Vioxx affair have been nothing less than despicable. Internal Merck documents—including a new one that recently bubbled up in a different Vioxx trial—show that even after the company had evidence that Vioxx was a potential killer it used every weapon in its well-funded arsenal to put off regulators, rope in consumers, and keep the bad news from surfacing. Merck did a masterful job, turning Vioxx into a commercial elixir: in 2003, sales of the drug totaled $2.5 billion.

Sadly, the Vioxx case is far from an isolated one. Think Baycol, Rezulin, and Duract. After each of these revelations came the inevitable calls for accountability and promises to reform the system—promises that were then forgotten until the next killer drug hit the headlines. How many times do we have to travel down this deadly path—the side of the road littered with bodies and the empty containers of drugs that were approved despite serious questions and left on the market despite growing evidence of damage being done?

The answer is simple: until Washington can shake its addiction to the judgment-blurring big money Big Pharma keeps injecting into the Beltway bloodstream. The drug industry spends $123 million a year on lobbying (for an example of what it gets for its money, check out the drug industry provisions in the Central American Free Trade Agreement) and doled out over $17 million to federal candidates in the last election.

Here’s a tip for Democrats searching heaven and earth for a moral values issue that can appeal to voters who believe in “a culture of life”: make it priority to put an end to the kind of corporate behavior that promotes a culture of death. Then you can stake a claim to being the real pro-life party.



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