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Painfully Risky Policy

The arthritis drug Vioxx was pulled from the market today, by its maker Merck & Co., because of recently discovered high risks to users of heart attack and stroke. Here’s CNN.com’s account. A report I heard on WTOP news radio in Washington, DC, featured a physician who complained that Merck took too long to remove Vioxx from the market. The news report went on to mention critics of the Food and Drug Administration — all of whom apparently believe that the FDA’s procedures result in too many drug approvals.

Nowhere in this story or in any account that I’ve (so far) read does anyone propose that each arthritis sufferer be given the freedom to choose which level of risk he or she endures. The unquestioned presumption is that that there is one proper level of risk and that it is up to national-government bureaucrats to discover and enforce it.

I don’t suffer arthritis, at least not yet. But I know that it can be a terribly painful disease. (I can still see, from the 1970s, my grandfather’s horribly knotted and twisted fingers, and recall his visible pain caused by his arthritis.) Why shouldn’t Mr. Jones in Joplin and Mrs. Williams in Wilmington each have the freedom to decide each for himself and herself just how much heightened risk of heart disease each is willing to endure in exchange for the amount of arthritis-pain relief that taking Vioxx offers?

Is there an even plausibly sound, non-paternalistic answer to this question?


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