Quis Custodiet ipsos Custodes?

  • by: |
  • 01/16/2006

The FD&C Act clearly gives the FDA the authority to decide whether or not a product, when used properly, is safe, effective, and properly labeled. As former FDA chief counsel (and my former colleague) Dan Troy said, “You want the FDA to have the last word if you believe in the FDA’s expertise.”

I, for one, believe that a product, used as described in FDA-approved labeling, should be considered safe and effective throughout the United States. And a majority of Americans are of the same opinion. According to the most recent AP poll on the matter, over 3/4 of Americans have confidence in the FDA.

Others disagree — most notably trial lawyers. Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Thomas R. Kline, a plaintiffs’ attorney with Kline & Specter (a “key player,” according to The Journal, in Vioxx litigation), “If the proposed changes were to be enacted, drug-product safety in the US would suffer a major setback at a time when the conduct of pharmaceutical companies and the FDA have been called into question.”

But consider this, comprehensive studies by the Rand Corporation and others demonstrate that only a small fraction of lawsuits that result in settlement payments or jury verdicts actually involve low-quality care. Rather, the hallmark of big awards is bad outcomes.

Unjustly, only a small fraction of patients who are injured negligently get compensation. And when they do, most of it goes to lawyers and the very high costs of administering our inefficient, unfair, broken system. The system needs to change so that it will deter bad care, not reward bad lawyers.

When public health is put before private gain, tort law and the lawyers who practice it play a very important role in protecting and enhancing America’s health. Tort law, appropriately applied, helps patients get redress for truly negligent care. When product manufacturers provide fraudulent information to the FDA, or deliberately withhold information about safety problems associated with their products, they should be held accountable. The dedicated members of our legal profession have always provided, and continue to provide, vital protection against those who would prey on consumers or intentionally try to pass off harmful products. The threat of litigation can be an important disincentive to many predatory behaviors.

The problem is that the current liability system doesn’t reward lawyers who focus on these real public health concerns. Instead, the most experienced and well-financed law firms know that the biggest payouts regularly go to those who take advantage of the FDA’s best efforts to promote the safe and effective use of medications. More and more often, these “mass tort” firms specialize in taking a new product-warning label or withdrawal decision by the FDA and viewing it as a signal to go forward with all guns blazing. Their bullets, unfortunately but not unpredictably, hit multiple innocent targets and result in a wounded American health-care system. These lawyers who hold up pharmaceutical DTC advertising as an example of inappropriate behavior by industry have no similar compunction about using DTC ambulance-chasing commercials for their own nefarious purposes.

But that’s another issue for another time.

The FDA has the authority, the ability, the means, the mission, and the mandate to manage the health care risks and benefits inherent in the products it regulates on behalf of the American public.


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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