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Behind the Push to Shrink Government

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Recently 377 people in 19 states were stricken with meningitis after they received steroid injections to relieve back pain; 29 of these victims died. The infections were traced to a Massachusetts pharmaceutical lab that knowingly was mixing “sterile” medicine in rooms contaminated with bacteria and mold.

This is a shocking story, because we don’t expect the medicines our doctors give us to be contaminated. We may be a little hazy about where the medicines come from, other than a medicine factory, but we trust that the nice people who make the medicine wouldn’t do anything to harm us.

And, probably, most of them would not. But there are exceptions.

A couple of hundred years ago, there was no pharmaceutical industry. Indeed, there was little of what we call “science” in medicine at all. Self-taught “pharmacists” learned there was money to be made selling patent medicine. They would bottle various concoctions and sell them as cures for all manner of diseases. Unfortunately, often these home brews contained mercury, arsenic, and other toxins. Compounds of opium and honey were popular.

In the late 19th century, researchers began to apply scientific methods to medicines. They researched what causes disease and what medicines actually worked. And they realized a lot of people were being harmed, sometimes even killed, by quack medicine.

Pressure from doctors and the better educated public caused the first Pure Food and Drug Act to pass in 1906, and ever since then the federal government has stepped in to oversee production of medicine, to be sure the drugs were not dangerous and did what they claimed to do.

Since then, usually in response to real tragedy, the federal government has been charged with regulating an overseeing many kinds of industries to protect workers and consumers. For example, when it was clearly shown that exposure to asbestos caused the deadly lung cancer mesothelioma, the government set safety standards and tightly restricted use of asbestos in the U.S.

This system isn’t perfect. Often pressure from big interest groups can delay restriction of dangerous drugs and other products for years.

For example: Phenylpropanolamine (PPA) was used in many over-the-counter decongestant products. It stayed on the market for many years after reports emerged in the 1970s of hemorrhagic strokes in people who had taken PBA. Instead of voluntarily taking the drug off the shelves, companies making PBA-containing drugs — including Bayer, Wyeth and GlaxoSmithKline — hired an army of lobbyists and lawyers to fight the regulatory agencies. PBA was not restricted until 2000.

You might also remember Fen-Phen, a popular over-the-counter diet drug that sometimes caused fatal heart attacks. It finally was taken off the shelves, but not after many of the people damaged — or their survivors — filed more than 50,000 lawsuits against the companies selling it.

You might be thinking, then regulation doesn’t work. When it doesn’t, a big part of the reason is that sometimes people sympathetic to the big pharmaceutical companies are appointed to positions in the Food and Drug Administration, and they are inclined to give Big Pharma the benefit of many doubts. Sometimes politicians in Congress, who depend on donations from the pharmaceutical industry to get elected, pressure regulators to go easy on the industry.

The fact is, we see time and time again that even the big companies whose advertisements you see on television will cut corners and take risks to make a bigger profit. Consumers have two ways to fight back, and they both involve some part of government. One is to pressure the government for better regulations and swifter enforcement of the regulations we already have. The other is to file personal injury suits in court.

In recent years, many politicians have claimed that those regulations and lawsuits are out of control and costing jobs.  For years, Republicans in particular — but many Democrats also — have campaigned on deregulation and tort reform as cure-alls for the economy. By taking away the only tools consumers have to protect themselves, the corporations can rake in bigger profits.

But that means consumers are going to have to just trust Big Pharma to always do the right thing, and long experience tells us that’s not a good idea.