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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When all you have is a hammer...

Here in the United States we have an organization that is typically referred to as the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. This organization, part of the executive branch of the U.S. federal government, is charged with ensuring that the foods we eat, the medications we take, and the cosmetics we use, are safe. And in the case of our medications, their warrant goes even further- extending from evaluating their safety to include ensuring their efficacy. The FDA is, like any organization whether government or private, not perfect, but it does have a wide ranging set of duties.

But are these duties important? Well, for starters, the FDA is the organization that monitors the blood supply and attempts to make sure that harmful contagious diseases are screened out before they can reach sick patients.* So if you end up in an emergency room and need a transfusion, you can be grateful that the FDA has your back. Likewise, some of us may remember thalidomide, a drug that caused birth defects worldwide- over ten thousand- and yet only resulted in seventeen children born with birth defects in the United States. The reason is that thalidomide was never approved by the FDA and, indeed, the link between thalidomide and birth defects was partly uncovered by an investigation carried out by the FDA. And if you eat food that you don't grow yourself, you can be glad that the FDA sets the standards for nutrition labeling and maximum levels of acceptable contamination.

I've been thinking about the FDA recently more or less because I've learned that there's someone who wants to get rid of it. I refer, of course, to congressional candidate Jesse Kelly of Arizona, who was recently asked whether, if he was elected, he would take steps to ensure that the FDA had enough authority to enforce rules for food safety so as to cut down on salmonella outbreaks. You know, outbreaks like the one that recently required the recall of a half billion eggs. Kelly's response is, if nothing else, instructive:

Or, to quote** the exchange in text:

KELLY: Here’s the thing with that point, that’s the first time I’ve ever had that question. Congratulations on being unique. First shot out of the box, no ma’am. I do not believe that what we’re lacking right now is a lack of regulations on business. [...] You could literally go spit on the grass and get arrested by the federal government if you wanted to right now. [...] More regulation, more federal control, giving Nancy Pelosi more power, is not the solution right now.

QUESTIONER: Who’s protecting us?

KELLY: That’s the thing, ma’am, it’s our job to protect ourselves. Because no one else is going to look out for your best interests except for you. [...]

QUESTIONER: Am I supposed to go to a chicken farmer and say I’d like you to close down because all of your birds are half dead?

KELLY: I’ve not heard a lot about that recently, obviously there’s a new thing that comes along every day. But I know this, every portion of our economy that is heavily regulated doesn’t have fewer disasters, it has more.

And this is not, unfortunately, an isolated incident as Kelly has previously asserted that he would like to reduce the FDA as much as humanly possible:

Now, I know why Kelly is making such arguments: as a conservative he's generally opposed to government intervention. The thing is, if more heavily regulated industries are more prone to "disasters"- and I'm not conceding that they are- is it necessarily the case that it's because of the regulation? Put differently, if more firefighters are called to a fire, and the fire results in more damage, does that mean that the firemen caused the damage? No, it probably just means that the fire was worse to start with, hence both more firefighters and more damage.*** Likewise, if we've regulated food and drugs more heavily, isn't it possible that's because the implications of tainted drugs or blood are a bit more serious than the implications of a defective XBox? I tend to think so. But, conservatives are all for deregulation so Kelly is all for getting rid of the FDA. When your only tool is a hammer, I guess everything really does start to look like a nail.

Now, I don't normally encourage political action on the blog- not directly anyway- but I'm making an exception here because nobody is gonna kill off my FDA without a fight. So, here's what I'd like to encourage y'all to do- Kelly's campaign has contact information on its website, which looks like so:

Or, in plain human language:

Kelly for Congress
698 E. Wetmore Road, Suite 330
Tucson, AZ 85705
(520) 888-VOTE (8683)

Christine Bauserman, Scheduler
(520) 310-9831

Adam Kwasman, Campaign Manager

Stuart McDaniel, Deputy Campaign Manager
(520) 349-5600

John Ellinwood, Director of Communications
(520) 419-8090

Lynne St. Angelo, Grassroots Director
(605) 321-6224

What I want you to do is e-mail those people, tell them that you are in favor of maintaining and strengthening the independence and role of the FDA. Tell them that you want safe food and drugs, that it's insane to expect someone being wheeled into an emergency room to compare the quality of their blood products or for private individuals to conduct their own drug trials, and demand that the FDA continue to be given the funding and power necessary to safeguard us. And when you do it, send along a copy of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle- a book that was instrumental in getting the FDA in the first place. You can download a free copy here. Don't threaten or abuse Kelly or his staff; be polite, be decent, but be firm.

And tell everyone you know, because if we lose the FDA we all just lose.

* Some of you may note that the FDA has also helped perpetuate the unnecessary exclusion of homosexuals from the pool of prospective blood donors. I'll admit I'm not a fan of that but, in truth, part of the FDA's job is to maintain people's confidence in the blood supply as well as its actual safety. So, even though there's no medical need to exclude homosexuals, they may have concluded that the benefit of enlarging the donor pool is outweighed by the potential damage to consumer confidence. Or, put more bluntly, there are lots of implications of a decision like that.

** Transcript blatantly stolen from ThinkProgress.

*** This is a basic logical fallacy, actually, summed up by statisticians as "correlation does not imply causation."

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