Merck and Co. said Thursday it was voluntarily withdrawing its arthritis and pain medication Vioxx effective immediately after a study revealed an increased relative risk for cardiovascular problems.

Vioxx has been marketed in more than 80 countries and produced sales of 2.5 billion dollars in 2003.

“We are taking this action because we believe it best serves the interests of patients,” said Merck chairman Raymond Gilmartin.

“Although we believe it would have been possible to continue to market Vioxx with labeling that would incorporate these new data, given the availability of alternative therapies, and the questions raised by the data, we concluded that a voluntary withdrawal is the responsible course to take.”

Merck said it has informed the US Food and Drug Administration and regulatory authorities in other countries of its decision.

The company also said it is notifying health care practitioners in the United States and other countries where Vioxx is marketed, while advising people taking the medication “to discuss discontinuing use of Vioxx and possible alternative treatments.”

Merck shares tumbled 8.39 dollars, or 19 percent, in pre-opening trade, to 36.68 dollars.

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