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Arthritis drug sales fell at end of 2004

TRENTON, N.J. -- For years, Americans have popped painkillers like they were candy to treat everything from headaches to arthritis. But new data show America's love affair with the medications may have cooled after the drug Vioxx was pulled from the market over safety concerns.

The data say sales of prescription arthritis drugs plunged at the end of 2004, after Merck & Co. Inc. of Whitehouse Station, N.J., pulled Vioxx from the market Sept. 30 and a string of recent studies raised safety concerns about other widely used pain medicines.

Nonprescription pain reliever sales jumped by double digits in late 2004, but doctors and other pain specialists believe many patients are simply suffering in silence, confused about what pain medication is best for them.

"I've been in practice for 30 years and I've never seen such a mess," said Dr. Michel Dubois, director of the New York University Pain Management Center.

He estimates about 20 percent of his patients have switched from cox-2 inhibitors, the painkiller class including Vioxx and Pfizer Inc.'s Celebrex and Bextra, to narcotic painkillers or nonprescription ones. Another 20 percent have stopped taking painkillers.

Data released yesterday by IMS Health of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., show prescriptions filled for cox-2 inhibitors -- preferred by many patients and doctors because they cause less stomach and intestinal problems than older anti-inflammatory drugs -- dropped 43 percent in December 2004 from a year earlier. IMS, a pharmaceutical information and consulting firm, said the number of cox-2 prescriptions filled at retail and mail-order pharmacies and nursing homes, fell from 4.5 million in September to 2.7 million in December.

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