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Pharmaceutical giant Merck, who has just announced that it will buy former rival Schering-Plough (maker of products ranging from the contraceptive NuvaRing to the allergy pill Claritin) for $41.1 billion, said earlier this week that it is currently “a target” of a grand jury investigation involving the painkiller Vioxx.

Merck said the investigation "relates to activities in connection with Vioxx." The company said it "has responded and is continuing to respond to requests from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for documents and information in connection with the ongoing investigation." –AP

Vioxx, the blockbuster painkiller that Merck introduced in June 1999, was withdrawn from the market on September 30, 2004 after it had caused thousands of heart attacks and strokes, some ending in death. In November 2007, the company agreed to a $4.85 billion settlement to end the majority of Vioxx-related personal injury lawsuits against it.

In addition to personal lawsuits, several states including Florida have sued Merck for allegedly concealing the results of clinical trials which showed as early as 1996 that Vioxx doubled the risks of heart attack and stroke. These states are seeking compensation for all funds (plus interest) spent on Vioxx by state health programs. According to Florida’s lawsuit, the state Medicaid program alone spent more than $80 million on the drug after Merck’s promotional campaign successfully convinced consumers not only that the drug was safe, but that they should demand it from their healthcare professionals as their preferred pain treatment.

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