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In a negotiated settlement, Pharma giant Merck has pled guilty to a criminal charge and has agreed to pay $950,000 for its illegal marketing of the blockbuster painkiller Vioxx, which Merck withdrew from the market in 2004 after the drug had caused thousands of strokes, heart attacks, and deaths.

Two years ago it was revealed in the Archives of Internal Medicine that Merck had “clear evidence” that Vioxx increased the risk of heart attack and stroke as early as December 2000—three and a half years before it pulled Vioxx from the market. During this three and a half years, Vioxx sales made Merck more than $2 billion a year.

Merck agreed to pay a $321 million criminal fine and plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of illegally introducing a drug into interstate commerce, the Justice Department said in a news release. The charge arose from Merck’s promotion of Vioxx to treat rheumatoid arthritis before the Food and Drug Administration approved it for that purpose in 2002.

Merck also is paying $426 million to the federal government and $202 million to state Medicaid agencies. Those payments will settle civil claims that its illegal marketing caused doctors to prescribe and bill the government for Vioxx they otherwise would not have prescribed. –New York Times

Notably, despite the company pleading guilty to criminal charges, no corporate executive at Merck has been held liable for any crime. There will be no jail time and no punishment other than the financial losses for the company, which admittedly seem paltry compared to its profits. As the New York Times noted, Merck’s CEO at the time these crimes were committed, Raymond Gilmartin, is now teaching at Harvard Business School.

Seems like corporations are some lucky people.

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