Walter E. Williams

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with ensuring that only safe and effective drugs are marketed. Such a task is highly complex and fraught with difficulties. Consumers, the ostensible beneficiaries, should examine and question the incentive structure that FDA officials face.

Some drugs are highly beneficial to certain patients but pose an unacceptable risk to others. Vioxx along with Celebrex are in a class of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) known as COX-2 inhibitors. Salicylates, such as aspirin, are a subset of such drugs. COX-2 inhibitors are sometimes prescribed to adult patients for management of acute pain associated with osteoarthritis. Vioxx, since removed from the market, was very beneficial to patients who suffered from stomach bleeding and ulcers when they took other NSAIDs. For other adults, Vioxx presented an increased risk of a stroke or a life-threatening cardiovascular event.

So if you're an FDA official, what are your incentives in terms of whether to approve or disapprove the marketing of a drug that has a tremendous benefit to some patients and poses a health threat to others? Former FDA Commissioner Alexander Schmidt hinted at the answer when he said, "In all our FDA history, we are unable to find a single instance where a Congressional committee investigated the failure of FDA to approve a new drug. But the times when hearings have been held to criticize our approval of a new drug have been so frequent that we have not been able to count them. The message to FDA staff could not be clearer."

There's little or no cost to the FDA for not approving a drug that might be safe, effective and clinically superior to other drugs for some patients but pose a risk for others. My question to FDA officials is: Should a drug be disapproved whenever it poses a health risk to some people but a benefit to others? To do so would eliminate most drugs, including aspirin, because all drugs pose a health risk to some people.

According to the May 17th edition of The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial, "Our Lawless FDA," by Hoover Institution scholars Drs. David Henderson and Charles Hooper, the FDA recently rejected Arcoxia, a new COX-2 inhibitor from Merck. In explaining the FDA's disapproval, Robert Meyer, director of the agency's Office of Drug Evaluation, told reporters that "simply having another drug on the market" wasn't "sufficient reason to approve the product unless there was a unique role defined."

Henderson and Hooper argue that this position greatly exceeds the FDA's mandate to determine a drug's safety and effectiveness. Arcoxia has been tested on over 34,000 U.S. patients. Moreover, it has been approved for use in England, Germany and 61 other countries in Asia, Latin America and Europe. Meyer's explanation is nothing less than fascist arrogance.

According to the FDA's literature, its mandate is: "Once a new drug application is filed, an FDA review team -- medical doctors, chemists, statisticians, microbiologists, pharmacologists, and other experts -- evaluates whether the studies the sponsor submitted show that the drug is safe and effective for its proposed use." Nothing in the FDA mandate requires that a drug has to be better than what's currently available in order to win approval.

Henderson and Hooper argue that in the worst-case scenario where Arcoxia is no better than existing drugs, it would compete with those drugs. Two centuries of economic theory and evidence show that competition is good. A new drug that competes with existing drugs would moderate drug prices and cause competitors to stay on their toes.

While Henderson and Hooper don't say it, I smell a rat. Arcoxia is produced by Merck, which has several major competitors in the COX-2 inhibitor market. Some scientists on the FDA's advisory panel have paid affiliations with companies who'd benefit from less competition.


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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