Merck & Co.’s chief executive for 10 years, Gilmartin on Sept. 30 withdrew the painkiller Vioxx in the biggest prescription-drug recall ever, prompting at least 475 lawsuits against the No. 2 U.S. drugmaker by Vioxx users. 

A three-year study by Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, found that patients taking Vioxx for more than 18 months faced twice the risk of a heart attack compared with those taking a placebo.

Gilmartin, 63, spent months afterward responding to questions from lawmakers, lawyers and consumer groups. He said in a Nov. 15 interview that his first indication Vioxx carried a heart risk came Sept. 23, and the company withdrew the medicine a week later. Vioxx accounted for $2.5 billion in 2003 sales.

Critics such as Andy Birchfield Jr., an attorney in Montgomery, Alabama, whose firm has filed more than 60 suits alleging injuries caused by Vioxx, said Merck had been concerned about the potential for heart risk before the drug was approved. The company had warnings from earlier studies that should have changed how it marketed the medicine, he said.

Merrill Lynch & Co. has estimated that Merck’s liabilities in Vioxx suits could reach $18 billion.

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