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Chinese Melamine and American Vioxx: A Comparison

By Ron Unz | The American Conservative | April 18, 2012

In contrasting China and America, pundits often cite our free and independent media as one of our greatest strengths, together with the tremendous importance which our society places upon individual American lives. For us, a single wrongful death can sometimes provoke weeks of massive media coverage and galvanize the nation into corrective action, while life remains cheap in China, a far poorer land of over a billion people, ruled by a ruthless Communist Party eager to bury its mistakes. But an examination of two of the greatest public-health scandals of the last few years casts serious doubt on this widespread belief.

First, consider the details of the Chinese infant formula scandal of 2008. Unscrupulous businessmen had discovered they could save money by greatly diluting their milk products, then adding a plastic chemical compound called melamine to raise the apparent protein content back to normal levels. Nearly 300,000 babies throughout China had suffered urinary problems, with many hundreds requiring lengthy hospitalization for kidney stones. Six died. A wave of popular outrage swept past the controlled media roadblocks and initial government excuses, and soon put enormous pressure on Chinese officials to take forceful action against the wrongdoers.

China’s leaders may not be democratically elected, but they pay close attention to strong popular sentiment. Once pressed, they quickly launched a national police investigation which led to a series of arrests and uncovered evidence that this widespread system of food adulteration had been protected by bribe-taking government officials. Long prison sentences were freely handed out and a couple of the guiltiest culprits were eventually tried and executed for their role, measures that gradually assuaged popular anger. Indeed, the former head of the Chinese FDA had been executed for corruption in late 2007 under similar circumstances.

Throughout these events, American media coverage was extensive, with numerous front-page stories in our leading newspapers. Journalists discovered that similar methods of dangerous chemical adulteration had been used to produce Chinese pet food for export, and many family dogs in America had suffered or died as a result. With heavy coverage on talk radio and cable news shows, phrases such as “Chinese baby formula” or “Chinese pet food” became angry slurs, and there was talk of banning whole categories of imports from a country whose product safety standards were obviously so far below those found in Western societies. The legitimate concerns of ordinary Americans were fanned by local media coverage that sometimes bordered on the hysterical.

However, the American media reaction had been quite different during an earlier health scandal much closer to home.

In September 2004, Merck, one of America’s largest pharmaceutical companies, suddenly announced that it was voluntarily recalling Vioxx, its popular anti-pain medication widely used to treat arthritis-related ailments. This abrupt recall came just days after Merck discovered that a top medical journal was about to publish a massive study by an FDA investigator indicating that the drug in question greatly increased the risk of fatal heart attacks and strokes and had probably been responsible for at least 55,000 American deaths during the five years it had been on the market.

Within weeks of the recall, journalists discovered that Merck had found strong evidence of the potentially fatal side-effects of this drug even before its initial 1999 introduction, but had ignored these worrisome indicators and avoided additional testing, while suppressing the concerns of its own scientists. Boosted by a television advertising budget averaging a hundred million dollars per year, Vioxx soon became one of Merck’s most lucrative products, generating over $2 billion in yearly revenue. Merck had also secretly ghostwritten dozens of the published research studies emphasizing the beneficial aspects of the drug and encouraging doctors to widely prescribe it, thus transforming science into marketing support. Twenty-five million Americans were eventually prescribed Vioxx as an aspirin-substitute thought to produce fewer complications.

Although the Vioxx scandal certainly did generate several days of newspaper headlines and intermittently returned to the front pages as the resulting lawsuits gradually moved through our judicial system, the coverage still seemed scanty relative to the number of estimated fatalities, which matched America’s total losses in the Vietnam War. In fact, the media coverage often seemed considerably less than that later accorded to the Chinese infant food scandal, which had caused just a handful of deaths on the other side of the world.

The circumstances of this case were exceptionally egregious, with many tens of thousands of American deaths due to the sale of a highly lucrative but sometimes fatal drug, whose harmful effects had long been known to its manufacturer. But there is no sign that criminal charges were ever considered.

A massive class-action lawsuit dragged its way through the courts for years, eventually being settled for $4.85 billion in 2007, with almost half the money going to the trial lawyers. Merck shareholders also paid large sums to settle various other lawsuits and government penalties and cover the heavy legal costs of fighting all of these cases. But the loss of continuing Vioxx sales represented the greatest financial penalty of all, which provides a disturbing insight into the cost-benefit calculations behind the company’s original cover-up. When the scandal broke, Merck’s stock price collapsed, and there was a widespread belief that the company could not possibly survive, especially after evidence of a deliberate corporate conspiracy surfaced. Instead, Merck’s stock price eventually reached new heights in 2008 and today is just 15 percent below where it stood just before the disaster.

Furthermore, individuals make decisions rather than corporate entities, and none of the individuals behind Merck’s deadly decisions apparently suffered any serious consequences. The year after the scandal unfolded, Merck’s long-time CEO resigned and was replaced by one of his top lieutenants, but he retained the $50 million in financial compensation he had received over the previous five years, compensation greatly boosted by lucrative Vioxx sales. Senior FDA officials apologized for their lack of effective oversight and promised to do better in the future. American media conglomerates quietly mourned their loss of heavy Vioxx advertising, but continued selling the same airtime to Merck and its rivals for the marketing of other, replacement drugs, while their investigative arms soon focused on the horrors of tainted Chinese infant food and the endemic corruption of Chinese society.

This story of serious corporate malfeasance largely forgiven and forgotten by government and media is depressing enough, but it leaves out a crucial factual detail that seems to have almost totally escaped public notice. The year after Vioxx had been pulled from the market, the New York Times and other major media outlets published a minor news item, generally buried near the bottom of their back pages, which noted that American death rates had suddenly undergone a striking and completely unexpected decline.

The headline of the short article that ran in the April 19, 2005 edition of USA Today was typical: “USA Records Largest Drop in Annual Deaths in at Least 60 Years.” During that one year, American deaths had fallen by 50,000 despite the growth in both the size and the age of the nation’s population. Government health experts were quoted as being greatly “surprised” and “scratching [their] heads” over this strange anomaly, which was led by a sharp drop in fatal heart attacks.

On April 24, 2005, the New York Times ran another of its long stories about the continuing Vioxx controversy, disclosing that Merck officials had knowingly concealed evidence that their drug greatly increased the risk of heart-related fatalities. But the Times journalist made no mention of the seemingly inexplicable drop in national mortality rates that had occurred once the drug was taken off the market, although the news had been reported in his own paper just a few days earlier.

A cursory examination of the most recent 15 years worth of national mortality data provided on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website offers some intriguing clues to this mystery. We find the largest rise in American mortality rates occurred in 1999, the year Vioxx was introduced, while the largest drop occurred in 2004, the year it was withdrawn. Vioxx was almost entirely marketed to the elderly, and these substantial changes in national death-rate were completely concentrated within the 65-plus population. The FDA studies had proven that use of Vioxx led to deaths from cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, and these were exactly the factors driving the changes in national mortality rates.

The impact of these shifts was not small. After a decade of remaining roughly constant, the overall American death rate began a substantial decline in 2004, soon falling by approximately 5 percent, despite the continued aging of the population. This drop corresponds to roughly 100,000 fewer deaths per year. The age-adjusted decline in death rates was considerably greater.

Patterns of cause and effect cannot easily be proven. But if we hypothesize a direct connection between the recall of a class of very popular drugs proven to cause fatal heart attacks and other deadly illnesses with an immediate drop in the national rate of fatal heart attacks and other deadly illnesses, then the statistical implications are quite serious. Perhaps 500,000 or more premature American deaths may have resulted from Vioxx, a figure substantially larger than the 3,468 deaths of named individuals acknowledged by Merck during the settlement of its lawsuit. And almost no one among our political or media elites seems to know or care about this possibility. A recent Wall Street Journal column even called for relaxing FDA restrictions aimed at avoiding “rare adverse events,” which had been imposed after the discovery of “unanticipated side effects of high-profile drugs like Vioxx.”

There are obvious mitigating differences between these two national responses. The Chinese victims were children, and their sufferings from kidney stones and other ailments were directly linked to the harmful compounds that they had ingested. By contrast, the American victims were almost all elderly, and there was no means of determining whether a particular heart attack had been caused by Vioxx or other factors; the evidence implicating the drug was purely statistical, across millions of patients. Furthermore, since most of the victims were anyway nearing the end of their lives, the result was more an acceleration of the inevitable rather than cutting short an entire young life, and sudden fatal heart attacks are hardly the most unpleasant forms of death.

But against these important factors we must consider the raw numbers involved. American journalists seemed to focus more attention on a half-dozen fatalities in China than they did on the premature deaths of as many as 500,000 of their fellow American citizens.

The inescapable conclusion is that in today’s world and in the opinion of our own media, American lives are quite cheap, unlike those in China.

April 20, 2012 - Posted by | Corruption, Deception, Timeless or most popular | , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. The TAC needs to do some fact checking before publishing something like this. If Vioxx actually resulted in 500,000 premature deaths it would have shown up in the overall death rate. It didn’t. See “National Vital Statistics Reports” (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr60/nvsr60_04.pdf). The overall and age-adjusted death rates fell from 1999 to 2005. Indeed, the age-adjusted death rate fell faster after 1999 than it did before.

    If the 500,000 statistic was correct, there should have been at least 100,000 incremental deaths in the peak year from Vioxx. That’s 33 per 100,000 for the entire U.S. See any blips in the data of the magnitude? They don’t stand out…

    Of course, the incremental deaths should really show up in the CVD (cardiovascular disease) mortality statistics. They don’t. See “US Death Rates 1975-2009″ (http://seer.cancer.gov/csr/1975_2009_pops09/results_merged/topic_graph_heartdis_cancer.pdf). Also see some Arizona specific data (“Trends in Age-Adjusted Mortality Rates of Deaths due to Cardiovascular Disease, Arizona and US, 1980-2004″ – http://www.azdhs.gov/azcvd/documents/pdf/az-burden-of-cardiovascular-disease.pdf). The Arizona data is not by itself particularly important (state level death rate variations are huge). However, the Arizona data exactly tracks the U.S. overall data.

    Is it possible that Vioxx resulted in 50,000 deaths over the period in question? Sure. I don’t have anything approaching the background to evaluate such a claim. I wouldn’t be surprised either way as to the truth. For the record, I do have opinions on topics like this. I spent years deflating Thiomersal / autism claims…

    However, there is a larger issue here. NSAIDs (Celebrex, Vioxx, Bextra, etc.) are all associated with incremental mortality. Indeed, even Naproxen (also a COX-2 NSAID) has been linked to higher death rates. However, these drugs are simply too valuable to give up. Ask the people who take them, if anyone has any doubts. For many, NSAIDs are the difference between a normal life and ongoing, severe pain.

    This is why the FDA panel voted 31-1 to keep Celebrex on the market. The same panel also voted 17-15 to keep Vioxx for sale. Even excluding panelists with industry ties, the vote was 8-14 (losing) to approve Vioxx. If Vioxx was really as bad as some allege, why did 8 panelists (with no industry ties) favor its continued sale? Why was the vote in favor of Celebrex (which is also linked to CVD) almost unanimous? See “10 on FDA Vioxx panel had ties to companies ” (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7031927/ns/health-arthritis/t/fda-vioxx-panel-had-ties-companies/#.T6lukFJpe18)

    Thank you

    Peter Schaeffer

    P.S. I have no ties to the drug industry (other than as a customer). I was once prescribed Naproxen many years ago. It was astonishingly helpful even though I only took it for a week or two. I have taken Aleve (OTC Naproxen) from time to time.

    Comment by peterschaeffer | May 14, 2012 | Reply

  2. A few more notes.

    1. If Vioxx had anything approaching the impact TAC (The American Conservative) is suggesting, it would have shown up in the CVD death statistics first and foremost. It doesn’t.

    2. Vioxx was withdrawn on September 30th, 2004. Many folks probably continued to take their pills for a few weeks longer. If Vioxx was really so deadly that removing it from the market for the last 3 months of 2004 had a material effect, then much larger increased in death rates should have shown up sooner. Indeed, since it was still on the market for most of 2004, the largest impact on death rates should have been from 2004 to 2005. In fact, the crude death rate rose from 2004 to 2005. Evidently, removing Vioxx raised death rates.

    3. The age-adjusted death rates tell a more useful story. The age-adjusted (AA) death rate plunged from 2003 (832.7) to 2004 (800.8). From 2004 (800.8) to 2005 (798.5) it was almost flat. Removing Vioxx from the market stopped (for a while) progress in reducing death rates.

    4. The introduction of Vioxx provides even stronger evidence. Vioxx was introduced on May 20th of 1999. However, sales were slow at first. Only 4.845 million prescriptions were written in 1999. The number of prescriptions rose to 20.630 million in 2000 and 25.406 million in 2001 (the peak year). The crude death rate rose from 847.3 in 1998 to 857.0 in 1999. However, it fell to 854.0 in 2000, and 848.5. Evidently an extra 15 million Vioxx prescriptions in 2000 reduced the death rate as did another 5 million in 2001.

    5. The AA death rates tell an even better story. The AA death rate rose from 870.6 in 1998 to 875.6 in 1999. However, the extra 15 million Vioxx prescriptions reduced it to 869.0 in 2000 and another 5 million Vioxx prescriptions reduced it to 854.5 in 2001. As mentioned above, the AA death rate falls from 832.7 in 2003 to 800.8 in 2004 (with Vioxx still on the market for most of the year). It then essentially flat lines in 2005 (798.8).

    6. The use of crude death rates is ultimately misleading. The American population is obviously aging. AA death rates make considerably more sense. In a few years, the baby boomers will start dying off in large numbers. The crude death might even rise. What does that demonstrate other than the pig coming out the other end of the Python?

    7. Obviously everyone will die eventually and that 500,000 is an estimate of premature deaths. Premature by how much? A year? A month? One second? If the reduction is material it should show up in death rates (AA and crude). It doesn’t.

    8. Death rates rise and fall for reasons clearly unrelated to Vioxx. The crude death rate rose from 1994 (866.1) to 1995 (868.3) and from 816.5 in 2004 to 825.9 in 2005.

    9. See Table 8 http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr49/nvsr49_08.pdf for a comparison of 1998 versus 1999 death rates. The overall death rate fell in the 65-74 cohort while rising 75-84 cohort and the 85+ cohort. CVD fell in both the 65-74 cohort and the 75-84 cohort from 1998 to 1999. The CVD death rate rose for the 85+ cohort from 1998 to 1999.

    See also Table 9 in http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr50/nvsr50_15.pdf for a 1999 to 2000 comparison. As Vioxx prescriptions soared (quadrupling to 20 million) all 65+ death rates fell. The CVD 65+ death rate also fell.

    10. In the last pre-Vioxx year the overall death rate was 847.3. In 2003 with Vioxx going strong, it was 841.9. In 2004 (14 million Vioxx prescriptions) it was 816.5. Of course, the age-adjusted data show that Vioxx “saved” even more lives. The 1998 AA rate was 870.6. The 2003 rate 832.7. The 2004 rate was 800.8.

    11. The crude death rate was essentially flat from 2004 to 2005 when it should have fallen the most. The 65+ data is more dramatic. Table 9 of http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr59/nvsr59_10.pdf shows 65+ mortality rates fell every year from 1999 to 2008. So did the CVD death rates.

    12. Any alleged linkage between Vioxx going off the market in 2004 and mortality statistics suffer from a basic flaw. Vioxx was recalled on September 30. September 30th isn’t Jan 1.

    Thank you

    Peter Schaeffer

    P.S. I am not claiming that Vioxx was harmless. NSAIDs are (apparently) intrinsically dangerous. However, the incremental deaths were too few to show up in the overall mortality statistics and more decisively, too few to show up in the CVD mortality statistics.

    Comment by peterschaeffer | May 14, 2012 | Reply

  3. A few more notes

    1. There were rumors that Vioxx was dangerous before the recall. Indeed the claims predate FDA approval (clearly another story). However, rumors aren’t numbers. There were 19.959 million Vioxx prescriptions in 2003 versus 13.994 million in 2004. That’s a fall of 5.965 million. However, the fall from 2004 to 2005 was 13.994 million. Yet, somehow raw (but not AA) death rates fell from 2003 to 2004 and rose from 2004 to 2005. 2004 Vioxx prescriptions were 70.11% of 2003. That’s only slightly below the 75% we would expect from the withdrawal date. In other words, physician avoidance (pre-recall) was quite modest at best.

    2. Total COX-2 sales did not plummet in 2004. The IMS data shows that they were flat or down slightly. Let me quote from “IMS Health, National Sales PerspectivesTM, 2/2005″

    “Despite the negative publicity and the voluntary withdrawal of Vioxx®, the COX-2 inhibitor class was flat for 2004 with sales of over $5.3 billion. Celebrex® remained the largest product with sales of $2.7 billion and Vioxx® achieved sales of $1.8 billion in the first nine months of the year before being withdrawn on September 29.” The link is http://www.imshealth.com/portal/site/imshealth/menuitem.a46c6d4df3db4b3d88f611019418c22a/?vgnextoid=003a1d3be7a29110VgnVCM10000071812ca2RCRD&vgnextfmt=default

    Other sources show Celebrex and Bexta sales peaking in 2004. Another report from IMS makes this point and suggests a decline in total COX-2 sales. See “Biotech Remains Industry Growth Engine, With 17 Percent Sales Growth”. The key quotes are

    “Merck’s surprise, voluntary withdrawal of Vioxx® in September and potential safety concerns associated with other pain relief medications resulted in doctors switching patients away from Vioxx or starting them on other COX-2 products. Patient volume for the remaining COX-2s initially increased by more than 25 percent following the withdrawal, driven by a 15 percent increase in new therapy starts and a two-thirds share of all Vioxx switches.
    “Over time, COX-2 usage has declined to below pre-Vioxx withdrawal levels, due in part to further safety concerns about this class of drugs,” said Lisa Morris, global director, IMS longitudinal services. “By year-end, the prescription COX-2 and NSAID market saw a 9 percent decline in total patients.” The link is http://www.imshealth.com/portal/site/imshealth/menuitem.a46c6d4df3db4b3d88f611019418c22a/?vgnextoid=933a1d3be7a29110VgnVCM10000071812ca2RCRD&vgnextchannel=41a67900b55a5110VgnVCM10000071812ca2RCRD&vgnextfmt=default. The 9% decline may have been versus the third quarter of 2004 which means that total COX-2 prescriptions could have easily equaled 2003 (which appears to be the case).

    See also “Sales rise for Celebrex and Bextra after Vioxx withdrawal” (http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2004-11-30-painkillers_x.htm)

    “Pfizer’s Celebrex gained a majority of sales for new-generation painkillers in the month after Merck & Co. yanked Vioxx due to safety concerns, according to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical information company.”

    3. 2005 was a very different story. Vioxx sales were zero of course. Bexta went off the market on April 7th, 2005. Bextra did generate substantial revenues in the first quarter of 2005. However, the retail data (not the entire story) show Bextra growing from 2003 to 2004 (to over $250 million per quarter) and then falling to $148.370 million for all of 2005. Once again this is retail only data. Even though Celebrex stayed on the market with FDA approval, sales crashed in 2005. See “Sales plummet as cox-2 miasma vexes consumers” (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3374/is_10_27/ai_n15341417/). Quote

    “According to IMS Health, sales of cox-2 inhibitors have plummeted 65 percent for the first five months of 2005, representing $1.5 billion in lost sales of Bextra, Celebrex and Vioxx. Of those three drugs, only Celebrex remains on the market. And now, two other cox-2 inhibitors that were in the drug development pipeline at the time of the Vioxx withdrawal are not expected to make it to market any time soon–if at all.”

    Another source gives a 48% fall in Celebrex sales in 2005. See “Pfizer to resume airing ads for Celebrex” (http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/health/drugs/2007-04-01-celebrex-usat_N.htm). Quote

    “The return of Celebrex to TV follows its financial comeback. Celebrex sales hit $3.3 billion in 2004 then dropped 48% in the year after Vioxx’s withdrawal. Last year, Celebrex sales were $2 billion. Still, it ranks behind ibuprofen and naproxen in arthritis prescriptions, according to market tracker Verispan. Before the Vioxx recall, Celebrex was ahead of naproxen but behind ibuprofen.”

    Let’s recap for a moment. COX-2 volumes were flat from 2003 to 2004 and death rates fell. COX-2 volumes crashed in 2005 and death rates rose. This is not the correlation the TAC is suggesting.

    4. Drug companies do give away samples that could impact total consumption in 1999. However, volumes appear to be low compared to prescriptions. In 2007, drug companies spent $8.4 billion giving out samples. See “Pharma scales back drug samples to physician offices” (http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2012/03/26/prl20326.htm). Total prescription sales were $286.5 billion (IMS Health).

    The notion that Vioxx early adopters were more at risk is conceivable, but lacking in any substantiation. Why would doctors single out patients with the greatest CVD risk, as the first users of Vioxx? To make such a claim, the TAC needs facts or at least a mechanism (in my opinion). If Vioxx had been the first COX-2 drug on the market this would be a stronger thesis. A person could argue that the sickest patients (in general), with the most pain, were the first users. However, Celebrex was approved on December 31, 1998.

    5. TAC’s use of overall and 65+ death rates suffers from several large problems. The biggest problem is that Vioxx apparently caused heart problems (all of Vioxx’s critics agree on this point). However, there is nothing in the heart disease data to support the TAC thesis. Online data shows that the CVD death rate fell from 1998 to 1999. To be precise the CDC has two sets of data from 1998. The standard data shows a fall for all age groups except for the 85+ group. Overall the rate falls from 268.2 to 265.9. Row 44 (the modified data) shows a slight rise overall (from 264.4 to 265.9) and big falls for the 65-75 group and the 75-84 group. The 85+ group rises as well. Any hint of a spike is absent. The 1999 versus 2000 CVD data show CVD death rates falling for everyone (as Vioxx sales quadrupled).

    Let’s look at this another way. An incremental 100,00 deaths per year is roughly 33 per hundred thousand for the entire population. No shifts of that magnitude show up in the CVD data.

    The NVSS (National Vital Statistics System) data makes the same point. The Major cardiovascular death rate fell from 1998 to 1999 (and kept falling in 2000) for all groups except for the 85+ cohort as Vioxx sales soared. Even the 85+ cohort is below 1998 levels in 2000. There is a big fall from 2003 to 2004. However, that should have occurred in 2005. The data has other big falls as well (1988 to 1989, 1989 to 1990, 2000 to 2001, and 2005 to 2006).

    The subcategories (Heart disease, Heart attack, Chronic ischemic heart disease, Atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, Heart failure, and Stroke) show the same pattern. Most fall from 1998 to 1999 and 2000. Heart failure and Stroke rise slightly. If Vioxx was nearly deadly as TAC’s assert s , it would show up in the NVSS CVD data. It doesn’t.

    As a check, I graphed CVD mortality from 1998 to 2007. The Vioxx effect is not apparent. The expected spike from 1999 to 2000 and crash from 2004 to 2005 are clearly absent.

    Thank you

    Peter Schaeffer

    P.S. David Graham estimates that Vioxx might have caused 88,000 to 139,000 additional heart attacks / strokes with a 30-40% mortality rate. That’s certainly plausible and not contradicted by the CVD data. Of course, total COX-2 mortality must have been higher because of the side effects of Bextra / Celebrex. As everyone knows, Celebrex remains on the market.

    Comment by peterschaeffer | May 14, 2012 | Reply


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