by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The latest Bloomberg Businessweek documents a high-profile Arizona referendum that addresses federal regulatory overreach.
In November, Arizona voters will decide whether terminally ill patients should be allowed to take drugs that are in the early stages of testing but haven’t yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Similar “right to try” laws have been enacted this year in Colorado, Louisiana, and Missouri.
The laws aren’t a response to demands from patients or lobbying by big drug companies. They’ve been promoted by the libertarian Goldwater Institute, named for Senator Barry Goldwater, the late Arizona Republican. “Our objective is to look at different problems out there and come up with solutions that are liberty-based solutions,” says Victor Riches, the group’s vice president for external affairs. “These individual patients have a right to try a medication to try to save their own life.”
The FDA’s modern drug approval process dates to 1962, when Congress began requiring companies to conduct rigorous clinical trials to prove new medicines were safe and effective. That law was passed amid outrage over thalidomide, a sedative prescribed to pregnant women suffering from morning sickness that caused thousands of birth defects in Europe, Canada, and the U.S.
Free-market absolutists have long said the FDA does more harm than good by standing between the public and medical advances that could save lives. In a 1973 Newsweek column, the economist Milton Friedman argued for repealing the 1962 law, saying “the cost of delaying a beneficial innovation is something like 10 to 100 times the value of avoiding a thalidomide-type mistake.”
Friedman suggested abolishing the FDA. The Goldwater Institute has instead focused its campaign on cutting bureaucratic red tape for patients. It’s hard for a politician to object to giving terminally ill people access to potentially lifesaving treatments. No state lawmaker has voted against the right-to-try bills in the three states where they’ve passed.
The campaign reminds this observer of the following exchange from a 2012 Carolina Journal Radio/CarolinaJournal.tv interview with John Stossel.
Kokai: So what do libertarians need to do to reach people and convince them that, say, regulation of something like the pharmaceutical industry does more harm than good?
Stossel: By and large, we don’t get to them. We don’t convince enough people. But you have to answer it one by one. If they say the pharmaceutical industry, I would say it does intuitively sound right. I don’t want some snake-oil seller to sell me something that might hurt me. They’re all looking to make money. They’re all greedy. And it’s nice that the [Food and Drug Administration] is there to make sure it’s safe and effective.
But think about it. A few years back they said, “Oh, we’re going to approve this new heart drug, and it’ll save 14,000 American lives a year.” And all the reporters said, “Great.” But it takes 10 years and $1 billion to get a drug approved. So if they’re saving 14,000 this year with the new drug, didn’t that mean they killed 14,000 people last year and the year before that — back 10 years? It did mean that. But you don’t think that way. You only think about how you’re being protected. You don’t think about all the life-saving stuff we don’t get because this process is so burdensome.
Furthermore, are we free, or are we not? Don’t you own your own body? If you’re dying of a terminal illness, you’re not allowed to experiment with a drug in America. You have to break your country’s laws and sneak to some other country. Isn’t that anti-freedom? Each of these arguments takes a while — takes some work.