Ever vigilant against foreign threats -- especially now that the MX missiles won't be based in his home state of Utah -- Sen.Orrin Hatch believes that some "anti-American, antiwestern and often procommunist factions" are stirring trouble again. How? By overly influencing his colleague, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who wants to control the zeal of U.S. drug companies for hustling drugs abroad that have not been proven safe and effective here.
In recent Senate floor debate, Hatch, dispensing some over-the-counter arguments that had the potency of mouthwash, said the opposition of the factions was an example of "emotionalism." Hatch charged, "They always overstate everything."
That was the prime overstatement of the debate. At issue was a proposed amendment that would remove restrictions on the current Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that forbid U.S. firms from exporting unapproved pharmaceuticals. The drug industry, profitable and wealthy, and with a record of exaggerating the benefits of its products and minimizing their hazards, has long felt put upon by the law. The foreign market is out there, it has whined, if only the regulators would get out of our way.
Until now, Congress has not been moved. It rejected the double-standard argument, that citizens in the Third World were less worthy of protection than Americans. Lives are lives. The ethical single standard held: Drugs that aren't allowed on the American market shouldn't be exported to the foreign market.
After the Senate debate, the Pharmaceutical Export Amendment -- backed by Hatch -- passed on a vote of 91-7. A similar victory occurred in Hatch's Labor and Human Resources Committee, with a 13-2 vote. How this turnaround was pulled off -- politicians going from opposing the drug companies to encouraging them -- mirrors the way drugs, if sales are slackening, can be marketed: Don't change the product, change the packaging. Promote it as new and improved.
The drugmakers' new and improved pitch is jobs and the trade deficit. They have come on as patriots rescuing a troubled America. In the Senate debate, big numbers were thrown around. Hatch said that between 8,000 and 10,000 jobs -- and possibly 50,000 -- would be created.
The reliability of these estimates is open to question. The 5,600-member International Chemical Workers Union, citing studies by the Labor Institute, says that "these claims are highly inflated." Dr. Sidney Wolfe, the director of Public Citizen, is also dubious about the jobs promised: "Most of the new U.S. production operations established to manufacture unapproved drugs would undoubtedly be located in Puerto Rico, where U.S. firms could take advantage of tax holidays, low-interest financing and low-cost labor. Puerto Rico would effectively create an even greater magnet to lure U.S. drug industry capital and jobs away from the U.S. mainland."
On trade, the export of domestically unsellable drugs would enrich the manufacturers by as much as $500 million a year. Think of what that will do to the balance of payments, Hatch argued. Metzenbaum did think: "You know what is amazing to me? Every time I turn around, I find something else is a new cure-all for the trade deficit. Emasculate the antitrust laws; that is a new cure for the trade deficit. Pass legislation permitting drugs that cannot be sold in this country to be sold overseas; that is a solution to the trade deficit."
Metzenbaum went on to focus the issue where it belongs, on the morality of turning the Third World into a global guinea pig for the American drug industry. It is, he said, another case of profits before people. Should the legislation pass the House -- where it is pending in committee -- Metzenbaum looked to the bleak day when an unapproved drug turns out to be hazardous: "You will not be able to talk about jobs when there are people dead in some far removed corner of the world and they show a little box on television that says 'Made in America.' Made in America is a source of pride to us. But it can become an evil and dirty term."
To Hatch, that is "emotionalism." He argues that the amendment allows drugs to be exported to only 15 developed countries, therefore why the uproar? Medical and health groups in the poorer countries -- the eventual dumping grounds for the drugs -- have been writing to Metzenbaum with the answer: Reshipment is the problem. Unapproved products sold to the 15 sanctioned countries can be sent on to nations that lack the money or technology to evaluate U.S. drugs. How is the FDA to police the resale of drugs to places like Haiti or rural India?
A Jesuit priest who directs the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi wrote in opposition: "Ours is an institution supporting the poor who are often victims of the profit orientation of pharmaceutical and other companies. We fear that this bill, if it becomes law, will ensure that harmful drugs will reach the poor who will have no choice but to use them in order to ensure the profits of multinationals."
To Hatch, the priest is probably just another anti-American, antiwestern procommie.