Merck is the subject of a federal grand-jury probe into its sales and marketing practices for Vioxx, the painkiller it pulled from the market in 2004, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The health-care-fraud unit of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts is investigating whether Merck promoted Vioxx to health-care professionals for uses other than those approved by government regulators, a practice known as off-label marketing, this person said.
Merck withdrew Vioxx after a study linked it to increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. The company faced some 27,000 lawsuits from people alleging injuries from the drug. In November, Merck struck a tentative $4.85 billion settlement.
The grand-jury investigation comes at a time when thousands of plaintiffs are weighing whether to enroll in the pending settlement.
"The potential of an indictment can clearly be an incentive for [Merck] to settle civil cases," said Joseph L. Doherty, of Doherty & Quill, a Boston law firm. Mr. Doherty has one Vioxx client, whom he says he hadn't intended to enroll in the settlement. "The mere potential of an indictment probably won't change too many people's minds about whether to enter the proposed settlement."