A Painful Mistake

Why a pharmaceutical giant withdrew its best-selling arthritis drug, and what that means for you

IN A WORLD IN WHICH THE FORTUNE OF a pharmaceutical company can rise and fall on the strength of a handful of blockbuster drugs, Vioxx was a giant. Unveiled with great fanfare by Merck in 1999, it was part of a group of prescription medicines called COX-2 inhibitors that were supposed to be safer for treating arthritis pain than over-the-counter remedies like aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen. Thanks to an aggressive, multimillion-dollar marketing campaign, more than 20 million Americans took Vioxx at least once. The drug racked up $2.5 billion in worldwide sales last year and accounted for 11% of Merck's revenue.

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