TRENTON, N.J. — Florida has joined eight other states in suing drugmaker Merck & Co. over what the state alleges was deceptive marketing of its former prescription painkiller Vioxx.
In a lawsuit brought by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, the state is seeking restitution for all money spent by state health programs on Vioxx, plus interest.
Florida's Medicaid program alone spent more than $80 million on Vioxx, once a blockbuster arthritis treatment, between 1999 and 2004. Merck pulled Vioxx from the market four years ago after its own research showed the pill doubled risk of heart attack and stroke.
The lawsuit alleges that "Merck's costly promotional campaign was intended to convince purchasers that the drug was not only safe, but that they should demand it from their healthcare professionals for pain treatment," according to a statement from the attorney general.
The suit also seeks civil penalties of up to $10,000 for each time that Merck's advertising caused a Vioxx purchase to be made, an amount that a court would have to determine, according to a spokeswoman for McCollum.
"The company also allegedly tried to intimidate physicians and researchers who questioned the safety of Vioxx," the statement adds.
Merck spokesman Ron Rogers said Tuesday that Merck acted responsibly.
The Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based company said in a statement that Vioxx was an effective pain reliever and that the company carefully studied the drug and consistently made results of its studies available to U.S. regulators and the medical community.
"We intend to defend ourselves against the complaint," Rogers said.
Alaska, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New York, Texas and Utah have previously brought similar suits, as has New York City.
Except for the Texas case, all those suits currently are pending in New Orleans under U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon, who is overseeing the bulk of the massive Vioxx litigation, according to Rogers.
The litigation includes a $4.85 billion settlement that will end about 50,000 lawsuits by people alleging Vioxx caused heart attacks or strokes. Several thousand other lawsuits filed by people claiming other types of injuries from Vioxx also are pending, and Merck faces two personal injury class-action suits in Canada and a class action suit by shareholders seeking to recover losses on Merck stock.
Merck has already paid out $58 million under a settlement reached in May to end allegations its ads for Vioxx deceptively downplayed health risks. That settlement ended investigations by 29 states and the District of Columbia and also required Merck to submit all new TV commercials for its drugs to the Food and Drug Administration for review.