FDA: This Agency Can Be Dangerous

James T. and Karla L. Murray
Lexington Avenue at East 79th Street, New York City, 2008; photograph by James T. and Karla L. Murray from their book Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, published last year by Gingko Press

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is a vital public agency. It is responsible for ensuring the safety of the foods we eat and many of the medical treatments we receive, and thereby regulates about a quarter of the nation’s domestic economy. I strongly believe in the FDA’s mission, and respect the many FDA employees who are dedicated to carrying it out.

But there is growing evidence that the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER, pronounced “cedar”), the part of the agency that regulates prescription drugs, has become the servant of the industry it regulates. This has resulted in the sale of drugs of uncertain benefits, some with serious side effects, and in the agency’s failure to respond promptly to evidence that a drug is dangerous. There is no better example than the agency’s decision to allow the diabetes drug Avandia to remain on the market after having determined three years ago that it increases the risk of heart problems and despite the existence of a similar drug that appeared safer. Even after revelations that the drug’s maker, the British company GlaxoSmithKline, suppressed indications of problems and biased its research in Avandia’s favor, the FDA remained reluctant to pull the drug. By the end of August it was still unclear whether the agency would remove Avandia from the market.1

CDER also does not fulfill its obligation to oversee the marketing of prescription drugs, thus permitting misleading drug ads and illegal practices such as drug companies inducing doctors to prescribe drugs for uses that have not been approved by the FDA. Although nearly every major drug company has paid enormous fines to settle charges of illegal marketing (Pfizer’s recent $2.3 billion fine—for illegally promoting its painkiller Bextra and three other drugs—is the current record), they evidently consider the fines the cost of doing business, since the same practices keep recurring with little interference from CDER.

Americans use enormous amounts of prescription drugs. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 3.9 billion drug prescriptions were filled in the US in 2009, an average of 12.6 per person. Most people over age sixty-five take at least three prescription medications daily. Since the FDA is what stands between the public and an aggressive, profit-driven industry, its independence from the industry it regulates is of fundamental importance.

This is not an issue that receives much attention from Daniel Carpenter in his imposing new book, Reputation and Power: Organizational Image and Pharmaceutical Regulation at the FDA, nor does the related question of whether CDER is doing its job of ensuring that the drugs we take in such huge quantities are really…

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