Protected to Death
AUGUST 01, 1969 by HENRY HAZLITT
The federal trade commission now wants to require all forms of cigarette advertisements to carry the following warning: "Cigarette smoking is dangerous to health and may cause death from cancer, coronary heart disease, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary emphysema, and other diseases."
In other words, the cigarette industry would be ordered to commit suicide.
Personally, I own no tobacco stocks and haven’t smoked a cigarette since the age of 11. I am even willing to concede that the substance of the proposed warning may be true. Nevertheless, certain aspects of it strike me as odd.
It is perhaps true that if you smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, you may end up 20 years from now with lung cancer. But it is almost certainly true that if you were to drink two quarts of whisky at a sitting, and could hold it down, you would end up dead within 24 hours. Yet the FTC is not planning to force the whisky, gin, or vodka distillers to announce that their product is even mildly dangerous to health.
Moreover, once this compulsory warning precedent is established, logic and nondiscrimination would require that it be applied across the board. There is evidence that excessive quantities of milk and butter lead to excessive cholesterol in the arteries, which may also lead to coronary heart disease, which may also lead to death. Should not the dairies be forced to print this warning on their milk cartons?
Driving an automobile may also cause death. Should not the auto companies be compelled to print this warning on the outside of the driving-seat door?
Under the guise of "protecting the consumer," Congress in recent years has been delegating to appointive administrative boards life-and-death powers over private industries.
An outstanding case was the law of 1962, passed during the alarm caused by the thalidomide tragedy in that year. Prior to 1962, Federal law already gave the Food and Drug Administration power to prevent the marketing of unsafe drugs. The old law allowed a new drug to be marketed if the government took no action within 60 days after an application was filed.
But the new law inaugurated a few very dubious legal and administrative precedents. It required that a new drug must be shown to be "effective" as well as safe. It put the burden of proof on the industry to supply "substantial evidence" that a drug was effective before it was permitted to go on the market. And it allowed a government official to withhold a drug from the market indefinitely simply by not acting on the application.
This gave bureaucrats power of life or death over a product or a company. They have not hesitated to use or abuse this power. As one result, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of new drugs reaching the market.
The FDA has tried to discourage the sale of nearly all vitamin tablets. It recently took initial steps to ban from the market about 90 fixed combinations of antibiotics because in its own opinion they aren’t needed. It says that neither the drug companies that put them out nor the doctors that prescribe them know what they are doing. It seems never to have occurred to the FDA that, so long as a product is not shown to be unsafe, the best way to find out whether it is effective is to allow it to be tried.
Thus one industry after another is in danger of slow strangulation from bureaucratic controls.
When will Congress learn that in the long run the best way of "protecting the consumer" is to encourage the competition of producers, to treat the consumer as a responsible adult and not as a half-wit and to allow him to make his own decisions and his own mistakes?
Copyright 1969, Lose Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission.