Greg Abbott, the Texan attorney general, has filed a lawsuit against Merck & Co, accusing the US drugmaker of misrepresenting the safety of its now withdrawn painkiller, Vioxx (rofecoxib), and pushing for it to be included on the state’s Medicaid list for approved medicines in spite of knowing the product was linked with serious side effects.

Merck pulled Vioxx from the market late in September last year after clinical trial data showed the drug to be linked to a doubling in the risk of heart attack versus placebo [[01/10/04a]]. AG Abbott is seeking $168 million dollars in damages – triple the amount he claims the state Medicaid programme reimbursed pharmacists for Vioxx prescriptions filled over a five-year period. “This is a prime example of a company’s drive for profit steamrolling its duty to be safe,” AG Abbott said in a statement.

If the facts about Vioxx had been known earlier, the attorney general contends that doctors and patients would have chosen other nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory agents like generic naproxen, which costs about $0.33 per daily dose, versus $1.94 for Vioxx.

In a statement issued on the company’s behalf, Ted Meyer of Hughes Hubbard & Reed, Merck’s national counsel in the Vioxx product liability litigation, said: “Merck… will vigorously defend itself against the lawsuit brought by the Texas Attorney General. Merck acted responsibly – from researching Vioxx prior to approval in studies with almost 10,000 patients - to monitoring the medicine while it was on the market -- to voluntarily withdrawing the medicine when it did. The company based its decisions on the data from well controlled clinical trials.”

As of March 31, the company said that it had been named as a defendant in approximately 2,300 lawsuits, which include approximately 4,600 plaintiff groups alleging personal injuries resulting from the use of Vioxx and 110 class actions.