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Patients sue over cholesterol drug marketing

/ Source: The Associated Press

The makers of popular cholesterol drugs Vytorin and Zetia are being sued in at least four states over allegations that Merck & Co. and Schering-Plough Corp. misled consumers into thinking the drugs were more effective than generic ones.

The four lawsuits — filed in New Jersey, New York, Florida and Washington state — all seek class-action status. They were filed on behalf of patients and medical insurers who paid for the expensive cholesterol drugs.

The lawsuits come less than two weeks after Merck and Schering-Plough released a controversial study that raised questions about whether Vytorin and Zetia are more effective than generic drugs. The companies have a joint venture that markets Vytorin, which combines Merck's Zocor and Schering-Plough's Zetia.

In the Florida lawsuit, Marion J. Greene, 72, of Niceville alleges the drugmakers violated consumer protection laws in all 50 states through the marketing and sale of Vytorin and Zetia.

"I feel I've been intentionally misled by companies whose main pursuit is profits, rather than health," said Greene, who took Vytorin for nearly two years, in a statement.

The Florida lawsuit seeks to recoup the difference in cost between generic cholesterol drugs that cost about one-third as much Vytorin or Zetia.

"The cost of those drugs is two-thirds more than the generics, which has the same benefit," said one of Greene's lawyers, Tim Howard of Tallahassee, Fla.

Merck spokeswoman Amy Rose said the company couldn't comment on the lawsuits because it had not seen them.

"Vytorin and Zetia have been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol in numerous clinical studies and they have been approved by the FDA for that indication," she said Thursday. "The company will vigorously defend against any allegations or claims to the contrary."

Schering-Plough spokeswoman Rosemarie Yancosek said the company "will vigorously defend against these claims."

Meanwhile, a congressional committee is broadening its investigation of the two drugmakers' handling of advertising for the products and the delay in releasing the Vytorin study.

The study essentially found that Vytorin was no better at reducing plaque buildup than Zocor, which is available as an inexpensive generic drug. Vytorin did reduce cholesterol levels a little more than Zocor alone.

Amid the controversy, Merck and Schering-Plough have temporarily halted TV ads for both Vytorin and Zetia.