The manufacturer of Vioxx abruptly halted sales of the highly-profitable arthritis drug Thursday, citing worries about the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Merck, which makes Vioxx, had long disputed studies suggesting the drug seriously increased the risk of heart problems. But the company now acknowledges it's dangerous for people who use it long-term.
"While the reasons for the results are uncertain, the data does suggest a risk to patients beginning after 18 months of continuous therapy," said Dr. Peter Kim, president of Merck research laboratories.
Vioxx was a blockbuster drug when it was introduced in 1999, boasting relief for painful arthritis without the stomach problems of other medications.
Physicians also widely prescribe it for acute pain from injuries and migraine headaches.
A heavy advertising campaign has made Vioxx one of the most recognizable drugs in the nation.
"Vioxx sales $2.5 billion last year, second for arthritis drugs only to Celebrex," said Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist with the Cleveland Institute.
On Wall Street, the value of Merck’s stock plunged. The company says that pulling Vioxx off the market could cut its earnings by as much as 20 percent. And that does not include the cost of lawsuits that will almost certainly result.