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NBC analysis: Vioxx verdict won't stop lawsuits

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Merck & Co. won a major victory Thursday in the battle over its Vioxx painkiller with a case that challenged whether the drug maker had misled consumers about the risks of the medication. A 60-year-old Idaho man charged that taking Vioxx for several months caused his heart attack four years ago and told lawyers that he would not have taken the painkiller if he had been informed of its risks. NBC's chief science correspondent Robert Bazell comments on the trial's impact.

Q. A N.J. jury has found that the drug maker Merck properly warned consumers about the risks of its Vioxx painkiller. But in August a Texas jury found Merck liable in a Vioxx user’s death. How are the cases different?

Different juries in different states. From the beginning of the case the New Jersey jurors showed more interest in the underlying science. And clearly Merck learned some lessons from its initial, enormous loss.

Q. What impact could this verdict have on the thousands of similar lawsuits Merck is facing?

A. Lawyers say it certainly won't stop them. But these trials are enormously expensive investments for the lawyers who bring them, and many will adapt a wait-and-see attitude during the next few cases to see whether a pattern emerges for or against the company.

Q. With all the attention being paid to the Vioxx cases, are doctors becoming more hesitant to prescribe painkillers?

I have not heard that. Many people suffer severe pain from arthritis and similar ailments and they want relief.

Q. With Vioxx and other drugs like Bextra off the market, what other options do people suffering arthritis or chronic pain have now?

A. One of the biggest lessons of the Vioxx episode has been that a lot of drugs are prescribed, not because they were necessarily better but because they were advertised heavily to doctors and patients. There is still one drug Celebrex in the same class on the market. And for many people there are many other pain relievers, including aspirin or Tylenol, that can be perfectly acceptable.