RIGHT ON THE HEELS of the controversy over the Food and Drug Administration's intent to ban saccharin, the White House office on drug abuse policy announced its intention to seek a ban of barbituates. The immediate question was whether this bill was another instance of government intrusion in an area of doubtful governmental concern. Whatever the merits of the case against saccharin, the argument of Dr. Peter G. Bourne, President Carter's drug abus adviser, deserves to be examined to its own terms. That case is simply put. Barbituates - Seconal, Nebutal and Tuinal - are responsible for as many as 2,400 deaths a year. Some victims are children who get hold of the drugs by accident; some are persons who drink while under the influence of barbituates, not realizing the potentially fatal consequences of that combination; some are intentional suicides.
Except for a handful of people for whom barbituates are clinically indicated, such as epileptics and some patients in hospitals, most of the 11 million barbituate prescriptions are unnecessary. They are for inducing sleep, and the argument of Dr. Bourne and his White House office is that there are safer drugs (Valium, Librium, Dalmane) for inducing sleep, if any substance is needed at all. These newer drugs are said to be just as effective for most people as barbituates would be.
That, at least, is the argument Dr. Bourne makes. It will now be put to a variety of tests by the Institute of Medicine and others over the next three months or so. If the institute's findings agree with Dr. Bourne's conclusions, then the White House will ask the Food and Drug Administration to hold hearings during which manufacturers and other interested parties can make the case for and against the severe limitations on the availability of barbituates.
When you look at it in terms of 2,400 deaths against 11 million prescriptions, you may well wonder whether Dr. Bourne and the White House are not making a disproportionately big fuss. The government, after all, cannot protect citizens from every risk, and it certainly cannot hope to prevent every attempt at suicide. But doctors in and out of the goverment who concern themselves with the problems of drug abuse reply that it costs little and infringes on almost no one's liberty to remove from the market a substance that causes more than 2,000 fatalities and provides no benefit that isn't available in a safer form. And that makes sense to us. If saccharin is banned, for example, lots of dieters complain that they will have no sugar substitute that is less harmful. But if barbituates are banned, substitutes will still abe available for those who have trouble getting to sleep.