Tag: FDA

A Right To Try — But for How Many? And For How Long?

President Trump has signed legislation restoring the right of some terminally ill patients to determine the course of their medical treatment. This “right to try” law builds on legislation enacted by dozens of states. The federal right-to-try law is an important victory for patients and individual liberty. But I worry these gains will not last. Here’s why.

Patients have a fundamental human right to choose their course of medical treatment. But how are patients to know which treatments work and which are just snake oil? The U.S. Congress attempts to solve this problem by empowering the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to block drugs from the market until the manufacturers demonstrate, to the FDA’s satisfaction, that the drug is safe and effective for its intended use. At a glance, this seems a reasonable approach to keeping patients safe. In practice, it has been a disaster. 

There are lots of problems with this model of certifying drug safety and efficacy. First, it routinely violates the fundamental human right of all patients to choose the course of their medical treatment. If the FDA blocks the drug you want from the market, or requires so much testing that you cannot afford it, or erects such high regulatory barriers that no one develops the drug you need, the government has violated your fundamental human right to choose your medical treatment.

Second, the FDA faces information asymmetries that make that first problem even worse, as well as result in unnecessary morbidity and mortality. Any government agency charged with keeping drugs off the market until it is convinced they are safe and effective will get a flood of information about its Type I errorsi.e., the harms it causes by approving drugs that end up harming patients. But it will receive far less information about its Type II errorsthe harms it causes by delaying the approval or blocking the development of helpful drugs. This is only natural: it is far easier to identify patients who were harmed by a drug they did use than patients who were not helped by a drug they didn’t use. The latter patients might not even know a beneficial drug exists because it hasn’t been approved yet. Indeed, the drug might not exist, because the FDA made its development uneconomical.

As a result, the FDA focuses almost exclusively on minimizing Type I errors. It does so by requiring manufacturers to conduct expensive and time-consuming clinical trials, so it can more often prevent harmful drugs from going to market. The agency requires more safety and efficacy testing before approving a drug than it would if it had complete information about both types of error. It requires all that additional testing even though doing so results in more harm from Type II errors than the additional testing prevents by eliminating Type I errors. The result is that the FDA’s approval process becomes costlier and longer, and violates the rights of more and more patients.

This next part is crucial. The public, media, and policymakers also receive far more information about the FDA’s Type I errors than its Type II errors, and therefore complain about the former far more than the latter. What this means is: the political forces that determine how the FDA operates reinforce the agency’s bias toward demanding more testing and more-often violating patients’ rights. We can think of the FDA’s standard operating procedure of minimizing Type I errors at the expense of more (and more costly) Type II errors as a kind of political equilibrium created by the information asymmetry the agency and those who control it face with respect to these two types of error. 

So while it is wonderful that President Trump has restored the right of some terminally ill patients to access drugs the FDA has not yet approved, I worry these gains will not last. This legislation does nothing to correct the information asymmetry faced by those who determine whether and when new therapies can reach patients. Inevitably, some drug accessed through this legislation will hurt some patients. When that happens, the same cast of charactersthe FDA, Congress, the media, and the publicwill all focus on those easily identifiable Type I errors. They will demand reforms that prevent further Type I errors. But because they cannot see the even greater Type II errors those reforms will cause, patients will end up both less safe and less free. The pendulum will swing back to the current political equilibrium. 

The only way to protect patient rights and to strike an appropriate balance between Type I and Type II errors is through fundamentaland I mean fundamentalreform of safety and efficacy certification for medical technologies. Read more here.

Is FDA Commissioner Realizing That America’s War on Opioids Has Become a War on Patients?

In a May 14 blog post, Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb expressed concern about the effect the nation’s restrictive policy towards the manufacture and prescription of opioids is having on patients with chronic pain conditions. This is one of the first signs that someone in the administration has taken note of the unintended consequences of this misguided policy—a policy that is based upon the false narrative that the overdose crisis is primarily the result of doctors prescribing opioids to patients in pain.

In response to a wide range of public input solicited by the FDA beginning in September 2017, Commissioner Gottlieb stated:

We’ve heard the concerns expressed by these individuals about having continued access to necessary pain medication, the fear of being stigmatized as an addict, challenges in finding health care professionals willing to work with or even prescribe opioids, and sadly, for some patients, increased thoughts of or actual suicide because crushing pain was resulting in a loss of quality of life.

Pointing out that, “In some medical circumstances, opioids are the only drugs that work for some patients,” Dr. Gottlieb announced that a public meeting will be held on July 9 on “Patient-Focused Drug Development for Chronic Pain,” and invited pain patients to offer their perspectives.

Hinting at his dissatisfaction with the 2016 one-size-fits-all opioid prescription guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have greatly influenced state and federal opioid policymakers, he signaled that the FDA is considering proposing its own set of guidelines. Unlike the CDC guidelines, which are not evidence-based and were never intended to be prescriptive, Gottlieb stated:

In short, having sound, evidence-based information to inform prescribing can help ensure that patients aren’t over prescribed these drugs; while at the same time also making sure that patients with appropriate needs for short and, in some cases, longer-term use of these medicines are not denied access to necessary treatments. We will take the first steps toward developing this framework in the coming months, with the goal of providing standards that could inform the development of evidence based guidelines.

Opioid prescriptions peaked in 2010, and high-dose opioid prescriptions are down more than 41 percent since then. Yet the overdose rate continues to climb year after year, with fentanyl and heroin being the major culprits while overdoses from prescription type opioids have stabilized and have even slightly receded. The overdose problem was never really primarily caused by doctors treating patients in pain. It has always been principally due to nonmedical users accessing opioids in the illegal market. And as prescription opioids have become less accessible to them, they are migrating over to more dangerous drugs. The present policy towards the problem is making patients suffer while, at the same time, driving up the death rate. 

This is the first indication that a significant member of the Administration might be coming to that realization.

Hospitalized Patients Are Civilian Casualties in the Government’s War on Opioids

A recent story by Pauline Bartolone in the Los Angeles Times draws attention to some under-reported civilian casualties in the government’s war on opioids: hospitalized patients in severe pain, in need of painkillers. Hospitals across the country are facing shortages of injectable morphine, fentanyl, and Dilaudid (hydromorphone). As a result, trauma patients, post-surgical patients, and hospitalized cancer patients frequently go undertreated for excruciating pain.

Hospitals, including the ones in which I practice general surgery, are working hard to ameliorate the situation by asking medical staff to use prescription opioid pills such as oxycodone and OxyContin instead of injectables, when possible. But many patients are unable to take oral medication due to their acute illness or post-operative condition. In those cases, we are often asked to use injectable acetaminophen, muscle relaxants, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents. But many times those drugs fail to give adequate relief to these patients—which is why they are not the first line of drugs we use.

The shortage is uneven across the country. Some hospitals are feeling the shortage worse than others. According to the American Society of Anesthesiologists, the shortage is so severe in some hospitals that elective surgeries—such as gallbladder and hernia operations—have been postponed.

Some hospitals have resorted to asking nursing staff to manually combine smaller-dose vials of morphine or other injectable opioids that remain in-stock as a replacement for the out-of-stock larger dose vials. Dose-equivalents of different IV opioids vary and are difficult to accurately calculate. This increases the risk of human error and places patients at risk for overdose, as was explained in a letter to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration by representatives of the American Hospital Association, American Society of Anesthesiologists, American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, and the Institute for Safe Medication Practices. The letter asked the DEA to adjust its quota on the manufacture of opioids to help mitigate the shortage.

As part of the effort to address the opioid overdose crisis—which is really a fentanyl and heroin overdose crisis—the DEA, which sets national manufacturing quotas for opioids, ordered a 25 percent reduction in 2017 and another 20 percent reduction this year.

National shortages of drugs are not confined to injectable opioids. Over the years, various drugs in common use have gone on national “back-order” and health care practitioners have had to develop workarounds. The causes of these recurring shortages, not unique to the US, are complex and multifactorial.

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When Government Gets to Say What’s ‘Natural’

When the federal government regulates food quality, consumers lose. Unfortunately, a Washington Post article on a recent increase in class-action lawsuits by consumers against food manufacturers over the use of “natural” labels shows how consumer groups are missing this point. In suing food companies, plaintiffs are arguing that these manufacturers (of cheese, in one particular case) are misleadingly labeling their food as “natural” while using milk from cows that use a growth hormone and eat animal feed made from genetically modified grain.

Though the plaintiffs and food companies disagree over what should be labeled as “natural,” one thing they do agree on is that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, which has so far stayed silent on the issue, needs to provide guidance on what “natural” actually means. Manufacturers argue that clear rules would help them avoid legal battles, while consumer groups believe that government regulation would reduce what they view as deceptive marketing.

The “natural” label fight is a repeat of last decade’s fight over labeling food “organic.” In that case, the federal government did step in, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture creating the “USDA Organic” label and establishing rules on when the label can be used. However, that hardly ended the controversy over the use of the term “organic.”

As I discussed in a previous post, traditional organic farmers are now fighting with new hydroponic farmers over the latter’s use of the “USDA Organic” label. Hydroponic farming seems consistent with organic farming goals: producing environmentally friendly and healthy foods. However, traditional organic farmers don’t want competition from the upstart hydroponics industry because that competition will likely cut into the price premium that organic foods now fetch. An FDA defined “natural” label would compel the same type of jockeying by producers to hurt rivals.

The “organic” label also illustrates that there is no reason to believe regulations actually provide any assurances about health and environmental benefits. I highlighted in another post that the “USDA Organic” label, far from indicating increased health, safety, and quality, is instead a taxpayer-funded marketing tool with dubious benefit to human health or the environment.

My chapter on health and safety policy in the most recent Cato Handbook for Policymakers explains why manufacturers call for these types of regulations. FDA regulation of “natural” foods would create what’s known as a “pooled market”—one in which anonymous producers provide a good without any branding and consumers are reassured about the good’s quality by government inspection and regulation. To appreciate this, think of the supermarket shelf of “normal” bananas that sits next to the shelf of “organic” bananas; can consumers really tell the difference between the two goods that warrants the difference in price? The “USDA Organic” label is supposed to assure consumers of that difference, but there are good reasons to question the value of that government assurance. 

A separated market—a market with different levels of price and quality conveyed to consumers through marketing and branding—would provide more choices for consumers. For example, in the past several years both Whole Foods and Perdue have used concerns about genetically modified foods and antibiotics as opportunities to market the safety and quality of their foods. Consumers who are motivated to pay more for healthy foods incentivize transparency and increased quality from producers.

And while consumer groups are claiming that manufacturers are misleadingly marketing their foods as “natural,” pooling the market through FDA regulation would protect the producers without effectively addressing the groups’ complaints. A pooled market allows manufacturers to hide behind the false assurances regulations offer, but in a competitive, separated market other food companies will step in to offer truly “natural” foods and reap the benefits.

As the “USDA Organic” label has demonstrated, FDA intervention into “natural” foods would stifle competition and limit manufacturer transparency. Consumers concerned with the health and safety of the food they buy should instead push for the choices and accountability that markets provide.

Written with research assistant David Kemp.

How the FDA - And Other Agencies - Shape What You Read About Them

An important investigation by Charles Seife in Scientific American looks at how scientific newsmakers – in this case the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – use “close-hold embargoes” to manipulate news coverage on breaking stories. Embargoes in themselves are a common enough practice in journalism; the special feature of a “close-hold” embargo is that it conditions a reporter’s access to a forthcoming story on not seeking comment from outside, that is to say independent or adversary, sources. 

The result of this kind of embargo, critics say, is to turn reporters into stenographers by ensuring that no expert outside perspective contrary to the newsmaker’s makes it into the crucial first round of coverage. And the FDA uses the technique to go further, according to Seife: it “cultivates a coterie of journalists whom it keeps in line with threats.” In fact, it even “deceives” disfavored major news organizations like Fox News “with half-truths to handicap them in their pursuit of a story.” 

The FDA has used this means of forestalling informed critical reaction on major, controversial regulations such as the recent “deeming” rule governing e-cigarettes and vaping. It also used the same technique in unveiling a major public health ad campaign – taking measures, as you might put it, to shape opinion about its shaping of opinion. An FDA official even upbraided a New York Times reporter who, unlike her colleagues, noted the close-hold embargo in her report. The agency resented its news-shaping methods becoming public. 

The whole article is a case study in how government-as-newsmaker - and by no means just the Food and Drug Administration - can get the coverage it wants.

Wanna Fight Superbugs? Stop Overprescribing Government

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 15: Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel speaks onstage at the Klick Health Ideas Exchange on June 15, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Klick Health)

Ezekiel Emanuel notices that inflated demand for antibiotics has led to overuse, and that antibiotic-resistant infections may be killing 23,000 Americans per year. He notices the pharmaceutical industry is focusing more on expensive non-cures for cancer that only extend life by months than on new antibiotics. But he hasn’t noticed that government intervention is causing these problems, so he thinks the solution is—you guessed it—even more government.

Government Inflates Demand for Antibiotics

In the Washington Post, Emanuel warns that “high patient demand leads to overprescribing” of antibiotics, which “breeds resistance” and can lead to superbugs against which we humans have no defenses.

Yet the main reason patient demand is so high is that the federal government—through Medicare, Medicaid, the tax code, Emanuel’s beloved ObamaCare, and other measures—have anesthetized patients to the cost of antibiotics and everything else. We would have less antibiotic overuse and resistance if government just let people keep their own money to spend on health care.

Government Distorts Pharmaceutical Research

Emanuel then complains pharmaceutical manufacturers are spending far more money to research and develop cancer treatments that only add a few months to cancer patients’ lives (and cost more than $100,000 a pop) that they spend developing lower-cost antibiotics.

If this state of affairs fails to reflect patients’ preferences, perhaps the reason is that Medicare offers to make drug companies and oncologists fantastically wealthy by paying for cancer treatments regardless of value.

Overprescribing Government

Rather than admit that government can be incompetent to the point of contributing to the problems it is trying to solve—as his fellow Obama-administration alumnus Larry Summers does—Emanuel doubles down on the Big Government ideology. He proposes requiring hospitals to track antibiotic (over)use as a condition of receiving Medicare subsidies.

Does it occur to Emanuel that a Medicare program stupid enough to subsidize five decades of antibiotic overuse might not be competent enough to track, much less solve that problem?

Next, Emanuel illustrates why the passive voice should be unconstitutional: “every antibiotic prescription should be electronically reviewed to be certain it meets national guidelines.” Like many devotees of the passive voice, Emanuel employs it to hide what he means, which is: “The federal government and its agents should review every antibiotic prescription you and your family receive, even when the government isn’t paying for it.”

What could possibly go wrong? I mean, can you imagine any reasons why people might want a little privacy when it comes to their use of antibiotics? Emanuel can’t—or he doesn’t care.

Finally, he proposes to have the federal government award $2 billion prizes to anyone who secures FDA approval for a new antibiotic. A system of prizes might actually do a better job than the federal government’s patent system of encouraging antibiotics R&D. But Emanuel does not address such thorny questions as who gets to define which new antibiotics will qualify; who sets the amount of the prize; what sort of complications financing the prizes would create; how this award would affect the FDA, and lobbying of the FDA; or whether the net effect of this system would be positive or negative.

Ezekiel Emanuel has no time for such trifles. He’s got himself a hammer, and by God he’s found a nail.

Conclusion 

Government is like antibiotics. Some amount is necessary. But overprescribing it makes things a lot worse.

A good indication you’ve overdosed on the statist Kool-Aid is when you make dismissive comments like this one Emanuel levels at current antibiotic-tracking programs: “Unfortunately, they are voluntary.”

Why Big Tobacco Loves the New FDA E-Cig Regulations

Today the FDA issued new rules regarding the sale and production of e-cigarettes and e-cigarette “juice” (the nicotine solution that e-cigs vaporize). The regulations will severely hamper a thriving and highly competitive market, and “big tobacco” is jumping for joy.

It is often difficult to explain to non-free-market types how and why big business loves big government. The song is always the same: we need big government to stop and control big business. Today’s rule offers a great lesson in why that isn’t always the case.

Like most big companies, big tobacco is stuck in a rut–namely, traditional tobacco. When billions of dollars are invested in infrastructure to produce a single product, it is very difficult to shift that behemoth to a new line of production when the product becomes obsolete or unpopular. Thus, small businesses are often, if not usually, the first movers when it comes to innovation. Blockbuster Video, with a costly commitment to brick and mortar video stores, could hardly have been expected to change its entire business model to rental-by-mail or streaming. By the time the threat of  Netflix became existential, it was too late. Many times, when big businesses are in such a situation, one of their last ditch efforts will be to use government to prohibit or hamstring their competitors.

Big tobacco has had a similar problem for some time now. They’ve seen smoking rates fall precipitously, and all future projections show smoking rates continuing to fall. Imagine running a business where the demand to “grow, grow, grow” is belied by an inevitable and irresistible decline. So what do you do? Well, you try to expand into new products such as snus and e-cigarettes.

Yet big tobacco had the same problem that Blockbuster had with Netflix. They weren’t the first movers on e-cigarettes. As they continued to try to plow a field that had grown barren, small companies began to produce e-cigarettes, and people began to use them.

Full disclosure: I’m one of those e-cigarette smokers. What some have pejoratively called a “wild west” situation in desperate need of top-down regulation is actually a thriving market concerned with safety, innovation, and satisfying rapidly changing consumer preferences. There are sub-ohm vapes (huge clouds of smoke), vaporizers that look like lightsabers, vaporizers with variable voltages, and many others, not to mention the proliferation of juice flavors. My preferred vaporizer company, Halo Cigs, is constantly altering its products for better consumer satisfaction and safety.