On the Other Hand...

The War on... Vitamins?

by Jim Davies

The government's War on Drugs is about to enter a new phase: not content with persecuting the 20 million Americans who regularly smoke pot, snort coke and shoot heroin and other recreational drugs, it now wants to interfere with the 120 million who buy vitamin supplements at their local, friendly drug store by forcing their manufacturers to make no benefit claims it doesn't agree with.

I confess I'm not one of the 120 million. But I do defend the right of anyone to buy and ingest anything he wishes, at his own risk and with his own money.

It may be that some of the claims made by vitamin vendors are false; perhaps they do not prolong sexual potency or cure baldness. I don't know. But the "cure" of having some bureaucrat impose his opinion on everyone else is far worse, in my view, than the risk that the buyer will waste his money.

After all, if you buy something and it doesn't work, whatever it may be, you and I already have a perfectly good remedy, without calling in the expensive steam hammer of some Federal Agency. We just stop buying it!

And in an extreme case we could sue the vendor for damages. This remedy is so available and so popular that it's a great wonder to me that I've never heard of a dissatisfied vitamin-pill buyer making use of it. That is, to me, powerful evidence itself that the vitamin-makers' claims are not far off the mark.

So who are these people in the Food and Drug Administration, who want to enhance their careers by taking popular products off the store shelves?

The FDA's supposed mission is to ensure that Americans have safe medications available. That's what they say they are for.

They do it by scrutinizing new drugs for about 7 years and then either giving or witholding a certificate of safety. If the drug gets a clean bill of health, doctors can prescribe it and you and I can stop dying for want of it.

The claim is that by putting each drug through this exhaustive test by disinterested government scientists, the FDA will reduce or prevent tragedies like Thalidomide, whose unexpected side effects caused birth defects. It's another way that government "protects" us from the greedy capitalist drug makers, who (it is supposed) would in their absence rush any drug to market that looks likely to spin a profit, regardless of its risks.

Well, let's briefly put the FDA through the kind of wringer they love to impose on promising new drugs. Do they, on balance, bring safe medications to market?

The whole motivation of those who work at the FDA is negative. They will never lose a job by being too long-winded - but there's a terrible possibility of career termination if they are too fast. So, like most bureaucrats, they follow the principle "if in doubt, say no." That's why new drugs take 7 years from invention to availability.

And that's why there are people dying of AIDS who would like to try new drugs under test, at their own risk, but are prevented by the FDA.

It must take a special kind of mind, must it not, to say to someone at the very door of death "No, you may NOT try this untested drug. It may not be safe." Exactly what danger, worse than imminent death, do these morons perceive?

Yes, indeed, they are at the same time no doubt preventing other deaths and deformities a la Thalidomide. But remember: if any saleable object causes the buyer injury through negligence by the maker, the buyer can sue. And for that reason alone, the maker will take very good care indeed not to be negligent. His own money is on the line!

So yes, it may happen, for all life is a risk; but no, there is no better way of minimizing it than to let everyone be responsible for their own actions.

There's another and very noticeable effect from the FDA's 7-year scrutiny: the price of the new drug is far higher than it would otherwise be. Two reasons.

One, the inventor has to jump through 7 years' worth of government hoops, and he is going to recover all the cost of that work and delay in the price of his product (otherwise, he simply won't make it, and everyone loses.)

Two, he has to recover it in a shorter period. Currently (and fairly, perhaps) patents last 17 years. After that, cheap copies can be made - "generics".

So instead of recovering (say) $50 million research costs over 17 years, he might have to recover $100 million over 10 years. A double whammy, caused directly by government interference. And you and I pay for it directly, in the price of our prescriptions; in this example, it's 3.4 times higher.

Does the FDA bring safe medicines to patients? No; not quickly, and not affordably. It performs no useful function the market would not do for itself. Far from being allowed to extend its reach on to the vitamin shelves, it should be abolished outright.

What to do? Well, here's one suggestion, if you are one of the 120 miilion users of vitamin supplements. Clip out this article, make a photocopy, and mail it to your Congressman with a note that says "I agree with this, and I vote."

Congresspersons are not always very bright, but that's the kind of message to which they catch on real fast.