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Documents show that sales representatives for drug-maker Merck were told how to deflect doctors' questions about the safety of the painkiller Vioxx before it was taken off the market.

The documents were released today at a congressional hearing. They detail how a vast sales army turned the drug into a blockbuster for Merck before it was pulled last fall because of an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

One memo told sales reps not to "initiate discussions" on a study that raised heart concerns. And sales training materials classify addressing physician concerns as "obstacle handling."

But a Merck official is defending the company's handling of the drug, saying it believed wholeheartedly in the drug's safety. And he told the congressional panel Merck is talking to federal health officials about what it can do to return the drug to pharmacy shelves.