Rebirth of Reason


Can Industry Block Regulation?
by Tibor R. Machan

Lauran Neergaard reports for the Associated Press and tells us, recently, of the FDA's efforts to seek warning labels on containers of ephedra, a popular dietary pill that the report claims, "can cause heart attacks, strokes and death."

It was a particular phrase used in Neergaard's report, not my weight problem, by the way, that drew my attention - to wit, "The warning labels - first proposed in 1997 but blocked until now by the dietary-supplement industry - could be on every bottle by year's end." There's more, but let's stop and consider the claim made between the two dashes.

How might the dietary-supplement industry block warning labels? What legal power do they possess to do so outside of lobbying, advocacy and similar means available by virtue of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which affirms "the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances"?

Actually, the dietary-supplement industry could not block warning labels. Only those in the U.S. Congress or the judiciary can do such a thing. We all can only plead, urge, implore, request, advocate or use other peaceful means that have no capacity to block anything.

So, this reference to the industry's alleged blocking of warning labels is a clear-cut example of journalistic bias. Instead of picking on the politicians or judges who have done any blocking in behalf of the dietary-supplement industry, instead of naming actual people who did it, reporter Neergaard leaves it at the sloppy allegation that the industry - members of the dietary-supplement business community - did the deed that has managed to delay warning labels.

But this isn't all. The report then continues with a reiteration of speculation that "at least 100 deaths [have been] linked to ephedra use - including Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler." The implication that cannot be escaped by anyone who can read is that the dietary-supplement industry, having blocked the warning labels, is responsible for the 100 deaths having so been linked to ephedra use. I'd say that's a pretty serious charge. To make it out one would need proof way beyond sloppy intimations based on inaccurate characterization of how warning labels do or do not get mandated in the dietary-supplement industry.

If you still doubt that this is a clear case of advocacy journalism, read on. "Critics called the action a timid step that endangers the lives of those who use the amphetamine-like stimulant for weight loss and bodybuilding." Okay, but what about those who are critical of the government's imposition of warning labels and of the suggestion that users are innocent victims? Their views are nowhere reported.

Some zealots would like a total ban on the production of the pills. Health and Human Service Secretary Tommy Thomson, sounding very hopeful that "a full ban was still possible and the FDA action would help build the case," was reported to have "advised athletes and exercise enthusiasts not to use the herb."

Well, in my book this last is all that would be necessary in a society in which adults are treated as, well, adults, not as babies. To start with, it is my and every other adult's basic natural human right to use whatever drugs, good or bad, if that is what we decide to do. Second, the FDA hasn't managed to be very effective in preventing accidental or negligent harm from the misuse of any drugs. Third, by banning drugs the FDA may prevent some harm, even deaths, while causing many unreported ones by making helpful if somewhat risky drugs unavailable to those who would benefit from them. (Indeed, people who can afford it routinely travel to other countries to obtain those somewhat risky medications, while those who cannot afford the trip are left to face the certainty of going untreated because of FDA policy.)

Such is the story of government regulation and some media people's complicity in it.

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