60 Plus Association
How do senior citizens like their prescription medications? Safe. Fast. Affordable.
In this country, drug safety falls under the purview of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the agency enjoys a near-spotless record in this arena. The speed with which the agency approves new drugs for market has steadily increased since the early 1990s.
Affordability? Well, that's another story -- an issue that warrants the FDA's time and attention.
As the head of the 60 Plus Association, a national senior citizens group that depends on 5 million seniors for support, I've taken time to study issues surrounding both prescription drugs and the FDA. Given the urgency and complexity of the heath care crisis looming in this country, I'm confused as to why Congress would choose now as the time to dilute the FDA's focus on prescription drug approvals and other issues.
There are bills pending in both the U.S. House and Senate that propose the FDA take over full regulation of the tobacco industry. A multi-billion-dollar industry, tobacco dwarfs the FDA. Current proposals would mandate that the FDA specify down to the minutest detail the requirements for naturally occurring components of tobacco leaf and the soil in which it grows. Preposterous.
The FDA already has a role in tobacco that is commensurate with its area of focus and expertise: prevention of the sale of tobacco products to minors. And that's as it should remain. No additional FDA oversight of tobacco is appropriate.
Rather than tobacco, the FDA needs to focus on fixing problems raging with prescription drugs. Although the FDA has worked hard to reduce the time and expense of its approval process, more work needs to be done. Today, it costs companies $800 million to bring a new drug to market.
That's clearly prohibitive and creates barriers to medical innovation.
Additionally, the FDA could and should play an important role in educating the American public, and seniors in particular, about existing discounts for prescription drugs. Discounts that would give seniors and others some relief from med-related costs exist, but unfortunately, consumers don't "shop" for their medicines in the same way they shop for groceries and clothes. An effective information campaign by an agency as credible as the FDA could alleviate drastic price differentials and help resolve the heated "reimportation" issue now raging.
The FDA's focus will change drastically if legislation passes that makes it responsible for tobacco regulation. No Congressional committee has held hearings with the FDA to determine if the agency is capable of such duty, much less the appropriate federal resource. Clearly, Congress must more carefully consider the feasibility of FDA regulation before it proceeds, and assess the negative impact such a law would have on the FDA's other and more important responsibilities.
Rather than turning its attention to tobacco, the FDA needs to continue its focus on keeping our food supply free of contaminants and our medicines safe, fast and, most importantly, affordable.
Jim Martin is president of 60 Plus Association, a non-partisan seniors advocacy group headquartered in Arlington, Va.