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Mums the word when it comes to profits vs. health

Remember when you were a kid and you used to “forget” to give your report card to your parents for several days? Okay, maybe that was just me. Anyhoo, that’s sort of what drug makers Merck and Schering-Plough did with the results of a study that show their cholesterol drug Vytorin (drum roll, please) doesn’t seem to prevent heart attacks and strokes. And, get this, it actually might increase the risks. (See Matthew Herper’s story on Forbes.com)

The Pharma companies finally came clean today but only after a series of recent news stories highlighted the delay in releasing the study results.

Not to say, “we told you so,” but, um, we told you so. Public Citizen sounded the warning to consumers in December 2004 that Vytorin (which is a combination of Zetia and Zocor) might do more harm than good. The clinical trial compared Zetia and Zocor and found that people on Zetia actually showed an increase in heart attacks.

I’m not sure which is more disturbing – that Vytorin received Food and Drug Administration approval in the first place or that Merck and Schering-Plough have had the negative trial results since April 2006 but have taken this long to let the public know.

Now, why do you think the companies took so long? Could it have anything to do with the hit their stocks took Monday after the results became public?

In case, you’re not good at connecting the dots, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, helps out:

Unfortunately, we are not surprised. There’s a $20 billion market for cholesterol-lowering drugs and companies will do whatever it takes to get as much of that market as they can, even if it means letting people continue to take prescription drugs that they know are not beneficial and that even may be harmful.

Merck and Schering-Plough offer the excuse that their data are complicated and their analysis of the clinical trial took much longer than anticipated. We’re not convinced. What’s much more likely is that the companies put their stockholders above their responsibility to public health.

You can read Dr. Wolfe’s statement here.