In the latest New England Journal of Medicine, Professor Wayne Ray and Mr. C. Michael Stein further develop a proposal for an independent drug safety board. Along with many editorialists in medical journals, they fear that the pharmaceutical companies have way too much influence over the FDA.
If so, that would be in accord with the notion of “regulatory capture” (a facet of the economic school of public choice theory) whereby companies in regulated industries take control of their regulators, causing them to confuse corporate interests with the public interest. Obviously, drug companies would attempt to take over the FDA, but I don’t see evidence that they have succeeded.
Ray & Stein point to PDUFA (the Prescription Drug User Fee Act), which critics contend turn the industry into the FDA’s customer, because the agency now relies on revenues from industry rather than just taxation for its existence and meaning. However, the FDA is a government monopoly. Drug companies must pay the user fees if they hope to sell their meds in the U.S. They can’t shop around for a better licensing body. So, it is incorrect to describe the drug companies as customers.
Furthermore, although the FDA has sped up its approvals as a result of PDUFA, it is still very slow and inefficient. In a recent paper I argued that the FDA, despite improving its timeliness, is grossly unproductive versus the British regulator, for example, in determining safety and efficacy.
Ray & Stein’s proposal has both good and bad elements, but I’d like to address its Achilles’ heel: that this new regulator will be funded solely by pharmaceutical sales. Many people confuse “independent” with “taxpayer funded”, but this is not the case. The more likely result is “unaccountable”, not independent.
In either the status quo or Ray & Stein’s proposal, the drug company (or, ultimately, the prescription buyer) finances the agency. However, under PDUFA, only drug makers with confidence in their new products pony up for the FDA’s review. There is some transparency between input and outcome. Under Ray & Stein’s proposal, companies’ pipelines are irrelevent because sales taxes are obviously levied on already approved products. If pipelines are full, but current sales weak, we’ll get no timely approvals. If pipelines are empty but current sales booming, we’ll get a bunch of regulators twiddling their thumbs on the taxpayers’ dime. (You can bet they’re not going to lay themselves off!)
Graham, JR. 2005. A Lethal Guardian: The Canadian Government’s Ban on Prescription Drugs. Vancouver, BC: The Fraser Institute.
Ray, WA, & CM Stein. 2006. “Reform of Drug Regulation - Beyond an Independent Drug Safety Board,” New England Journal of Medicine 354, 2 (January 12): 194-201.