The Vioxx Hex

It’s a real thrill when the editorial page of the Washington Post starts to sound like, well, me (e.g. here and here).

Politicians and regulators should be asking themselves whether a system of
massive cash awards to people who may or may not have been adversely affected by
Vioxx is a logical, fair or efficient way to run a drug regulatory system. They
should also be asking whether juries that scorn medical evidence are the right
judges of what information should or should not have been on a prescription
label. After all, Vioxx was produced and sold legally. The drug was approved by
the Food and Drug Administration, and its label did warn of coronary side
effects. It is possible, even probable, that Merck was negligent in its decision
to ignore early warnings of the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx. But the company
has already paid a price for that negligence, in the losses it has suffered
after abruptly taking Vioxx off the market. Fair compensation for the injured
needn’t entail disproportionate financial punishment as well.

In the long term, using the courts to "send a message" to Merck isn’t going
to help consumers. If the result is an even more cautious FDA approval system
and a more cautious pharmaceutical industry, that will keep innovative drugs off
the market for much longer. More people will die waiting for new treatments. The
cost of producing new drugs will rise dramatically. Already, there are whole
areas of medicine — women’s health during pregnancy, for example — that are
made so risky by liability issues that companies may stop doing research in

The first principle of reforming this system should be that a company that
follows the FDA’s rather extensive guidelines should be protected from punitive,
if not compensatory, damages.


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