A group of 18 Italians is filing a class action lawsuit in the U.S. against Whitehouse Stations Merck (NYSE: MRK), seeking damages after suffering heart attacks and strokes it says were caused by the Vioxx painkiller.

Citing Kenneth B. Moll, the American lawyer who is helping the group file the complaint in Louisiana, the Associated Press said the class action allows other Italians who claim to have suffered illness after taking Vioxx to join the case without having to file separate lawsuits.

The complaint is being submitted to U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon in New Orleans, who is overseeing all the federal Vioxx cases in the U.S. and handling all pretrial proceedings, the news agency said, adding that the judge has to certify the complaint as a class action before a trial can begin.

Vioxx was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in May 1999 and was first introduced in the Italian market during the summer of 2000.

Merck announced in September 2004 that it was pulling Vioxx off the market in the U.S. and other countries after a study showed it doubled the risk of cardiovascular diseases in patients taking the drug for more than 18 months.

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