Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Big Brother's Little Helper

You may have heard that the U.S. is searching for a new Surgeon General. Good. We certainly need one. How else is one to know that a diet rich in red meat and bleach is a problem?

Medical mega-stud Sanjay Gupta has already turned down the job. So has Howard “Open Up and Say Ahhhhhhhhh!” Dean.

But get this, as we're holding auditions for a new Surgeon General, the Supreme Court has just ruled that the FDA's seal of approval on prescription drugs is no longer the final word on drug safety. Justice John Paul Stevens proclaimed there was "powerful evidence that Congress did not intend FDA oversight to be the exclusive means of ensuring drug safety and effectiveness."

In other words, if the FDA greenlights a new drug--we’ll call it Indemnify®--and it turns out that rather than protect against parasites, Indemnify® instead causes seizures and dandruff, the FDA can throw up its hands up and say, “Nobody’s perfect!”

If the FDA's word isn't the final word, why have an FDA in the first place? Do we really need a team of tax-chugging, figurehead drug-screeners? If the ultimate responsibility for ensuring drug safety rests with the drug companies, then the FDA is effectively reduced to being ceremonial; an American version of royalty. Perhaps we should call them the Lab of Lords.

And though not exactly related, the FDA’s lack of accountability helps highlight the uselessness of the Surgeon General. The government is not prepared to stand firmly behind its medical proclamations. Fine. Why then do we need a tax-funded spokesquack for non-binding health advice? Our private physicians--who like the drug the companies, have accountability for their actions--can handle our preventative health needs. And unlike the Surgeon General, private physicians don't cost the taxpayer a six-figure a year co-pay.

The excuse that the FDA screens sooooooo many drugs and is therefore bound to make mistakes could just as easily be applied to the drug companies. Any decent sized pharmaceutical outfit is bound to have a wide range of drugs in development at all times. Unforeseen problems will arise. But when a drug company makes a boo-boo, they normally have to pay a price in civil court. When the FDA whiffs, it is still the drug company that gets stuck with the bill. The Mafia couldn’t have sketched a more one-sided arrangement. Drug companies are forced to deal with the FDA, but the FDA isn't forced to stand behind its rulings. I say if Pharma Inc. is to be compeled to tangle with Federal middlemen (at great personal cost), the least they can expect is protection against lawsuits stemming from FDA-approved products.

If I wanted to be crabby about it, I might also point out that the FDA is unconstitutional. But then these days, you could throw a dart at a newspaper and any story you'd land on would have that same problem.