Leading article: A setback for medicine

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The Independent Online

Multinational drugs companies, especially ones based in the United States, have long been the pantomime villains of the liberal media. But liberal prejudices collide in the Vioxx case, in which a US court last week ruled that Merck, the makers of the arthritis pain-relieving drug, should pay £140m to the widow of a man who died while taking it.

On this occasion, the balance of disapproval should rest with the Texas jury and court more than with Merck. We have not seen all the evidence before the court, but there did not appear to be conclusive proof that Merck was negligent and that this negligence was responsible for the man's death. With the benefit of hindsight, after Vioxx was withdrawn last year, it was possible to argue that some warning signs should not have been dismissed so easily by medical researchers. But to attribute this failure to Merck's negligence is implausible. First, because it requires a conspiracy extending to the Federal Drugs Administration. And, second, because it assumes that Merck has acted contrary to its economic interest. If a drug is dangerous it will get found out, and if a drugs company is then found to have suppressed the evidence it will be sued.

Which brings us to the most absurd feature of the ruling: the size of the award. £140m damages - for one case - is plainly excessive. A balance has to be struck between encouraging companies to develop drugs and putting pressure on them to ensure the drugs are safe. In last week's case, the balance tilted too far against the taking of risks in order to try to improve the quality of life for millions. It should be remembered that, in the case of arthritis, for which there is no cure, doctors are under pressure to ease pain. The balance must be righted by a higher court.