A federal grand jury is investigating Merck's marketing of Vioxx, the infamous painkiller pulled from the market in 2004. The Wall Street Journal reports that a health-care fraud unit in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts is probing whether Merck promoted the drug for off-label use.
According to a filing with the SEC, Merck was subpoenaed by the Justice Department for information about research, marketing and sales of Vioxx. Thirty-one attorneys general and the District of Columbia are looking into Vioxx marketing, the company disclosed.
Previous Justice Department probes into drug marketing have cost pharma millions; AstraZeneca paid $355 million in 2003, for instance. And it comes as Merck is hoping to wrap up litigation over the withdrawn drug with a $4.85 billion settlement. One attorney involved in the Vioxx litigation told the WSJ that the potential of a grand-jury indictment could have been an incentive for Merck to settle its civil claims.
Speaking of marketing-related lawsuits, two Springfield, Illinois, doctors have sued a Merck rep, alleging that she sent anonymous letters claiming the docs and their wives are obnoxious, greedy, and heavy drinkers. The letters surfaced after a Merck-hosted dinner, where one of the docs asked about the cardiovascular side effects of Merck's Zostavax vaccine. Merck declined comment on the suit.