Propecia legal troubles weigh on Merck stock
Legal troubles for Merck continue to mount with the announcement of more lawsuits being consolidated in the Multi-District Litigation underway in New York. This new litigation is in addition to more than 780 cases being handled in the Eastern District Court of New York, and an estimated 210 suits filed in New Jersey, where Merck is headquartered. These Propecia lawsuits, including two separate class actions, continue to plague Merck from their once-blockbuster hair loss drug. The litigation stems from allegations of Merck’s failure to warn doctors and patients of potential side effects, defective design of the drug’s active ingredient finasteride, and inadequate label warnings prior to a FDA mandated change to the drug’s marketing materials. All told, an estimated 1100 lawsuits with allegations ranging from permanent sexual side effects to severe emotional and cognitive impairment have been filed against the company in the last three years.
The concern over Propecia side effects, including a serious form of prostate cancer, first came to light in 1998 soon after the drug first came on the market for widespread use. Governmental concerns about the drug reached critical mass in 2012, when the FDA required Merck to add warnings to the packaging and literature for Propecia and Proscar detailing the risks of sexual side effects. Detractors have said that Merck purposely under-stated how many people were affected, even after their internal scientists warned them it was much higher than their marketing materials stated. Since the FDA mandate, a chorus has grown that the injuries from usage of the drug may be long-lasting and even permanent.
For Merck, the company’s legal liability stemming from Propecia continues to grow over time, just as revenues from the drug continue to slide. Merck lost its patent exclusivity last year, allowing generic manufacturers to enter the market cheaply. Once a revenue powerhouse, (Propecia sold over $429 million in 2008, compared to less than $100 million last year) Propecia now looks to be an albatross that is weighing down on the pharmaceutical giant. Merck faces the proposition of skyrocketing liability costs just when revenues from the drug are at an all-time low. Merck is no stranger to dangerous drug litigation costs from some of its most well-known drugs, most notably Vioxx.
Vioxx, the infamous arthritis drug that has cost the company more than $5.8 billion in damages and criminal charges since it was recalled, is a cautionary tale for Merck when it comes to long-term liability from some of their most heavily marketed drugs. The pharmaceutical company will no doubt seek to minimize the expenses of long-term Propecia litigation through negotiated settlements with plaintiff attorneys to avoid the risk of more jury verdicts putting further pressure on the company’s stock.
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