May Cause Anxiety (in Lawyers)

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  • 01/25/2006

A few key paragraphs from an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal on the new Physician-Labeling rule:

So you might think everyone would welcome the Food and Drug Administration’s latest initiative to tackle the problem by requiring simplified labels with the most important information prominently displayed. But not some Democrats on Capitol Hill, who are so dependent on their trial-lawyer donors that they are fighting to preserve the current climate of uncertainty and confusion.

“A typical abuse by the Bush Administration,” said Ted Kennedy after the announcement last week of the FDA’s new labeling rule. House Democrat Maurice Hinchey said the FDA had “gone to bat for the drug industry.” He is threatening legislative action. And of course the lawyer (er, “consumer”) advocates at Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen piled on.

If drug makers are going to be asked to simplify labels, it only makes sense for the FDA to reassure them that the sound science embodied in its labeling oversight will still be held to “pre-empt” contrary findings at lower levels of government.

The FDA’s reassertion of the pre-emption doctrine is really nothing new, as some recent cases demonstrate … In Dowhal v. SmithKline Beecham, a plaintiff argued that nicotine replacement products be required to warn that they might theoretically cause birth defects. But the FDA had already considered and denied requests for such a warning because it believed the known risks of a mother’s continued smoking to a fetus far outweigh the known risks of nicotine itself. Again, there was the possibility of the court issuing a ruling in direct contradiction of federal law, and again the FDA intervened.

It’s hard to think of a case that better illustrates the moral bankruptcy of the Kennedy-Hinchey-trial lawyer position here than Dowhal. The kind of labeling and litigation environment they are fighting to preserve would probably have the effect, among others, of more women continuing to smoke during pregnancy. Overwarning on medications can be as much of a risk to public health as underwarning.

Our only concern is that this latest assertion of the pre-emption doctrine may not be enough to rein in state courts that have ignored it before. Congress might also consider making the FDA’s supremacy in drug safety matters clearer in statute, lest the Vioxx cases and others do irreversible damage to a vital American industry. Or, if Congress doesn’t like pre-emption, it could always dissolve the FDA and leave the matter entirely to the tort system. What should be unacceptable is to leave companies, as now, subject to the double jeopardy of FDA approval followed by tort-law second guessing.

Well said!


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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