In the closing days of the 2005 legislative year, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and the White House fail to obtain the needed support for a proposal to shield flu vaccine manufacturers from injury claims related to side effects of their products. Eschewing the democratic process, Frist rolls the desired language into a Defense Appropriations Bill without the knowledge of the House-Senate Conference Committee that was charged with reconciling the House and Senate versions of the bill. It seems merely coincidental that Frist has received $271,000 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry since 1989, or that the industry contributed nearly $800,000 to the Bush campaigns in 2000 and 2004.
In January, the FDA -- another organization touting its unceasing concern for the health of ordinary Americans -- pre-empts state prescription drug product liability laws by updating the agency's rules on drug labels. State Attorneys General are outraged and demand to see the new policy in order to comment before it takes effect. The FDA refuses. In a letter to the FDA, Illinois senator and president of the National Conference of State Legislatures Steve Rauschenberger writes that "This attempt to insert pre-emption language is a thinly veiled attempt on the part of the FDA to confer upon itself authority it does not have by statute and does not have by way of judicial ruling."
Fast-forward to March 2006. The "National Uniformity for Food Act" passes through the House of Representatives and begins winding its way through the Senate. Though touted by the Grocery Manufacturers Association as "a single set of food safety and warning standards that will help consumers to make educated choices," in reality the act is an attempt to trump state regulations by putting everything under the control of the FDA.
The FDA's protection of its "clients" might make sense if states did a poor job protecting consumers, but clearly this isn't the case. For example, California laws against lead content in calcium supplements fostered the removal of lead from most products long before the issue registered on the FDA's radar. The increased power of the FDA might even make sense if drug manufacturers did a competent job testing their products, but this isn't the case either. According to a recent study by Knight-Ridder, there was one adverse drug reaction per every 16,300 prescriptions in 1992. By 2003, the ratio had risen to one in 9,000.
Sadly, these and other quasi-legal sweetheart deals between government and industry occur with numbing frequency, and it seems unlikely there will be any public outrage on this issue. But at the very least, consumers should be suspicious the next time they see an ad from a drug company proclaiming how much it cares.