IT SEEMED odd at the time. An advisory committee of the federal Food and Drug Administration voted Feb. 18 for continued marketing of three popular painkillers even though there is plenty of scientific evidence that the drugs, Vioxx, Celebrex, and Bextra, create an undue risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Now, according to a report in the New York Times, we have a better idea why the FDA's drug safety panel decided as it did. It turns out that at least 10 of the 32 committee members have financial ties to the pharmaceutical manufacturers involved.
If those 10 had been forced to recuse themselves for conflict of interest, the advisory panel's deciding votes would have gone the other way, the Times reported.
The conflicts, involving previous consulting work for Merck, which makes Vioxx, and Pfizer, which makes Bextra and Celebrex, were documented in medical journals and public records.
The FDA's tactic has been to read a statement at the beginning of its advisory panel meetings acknowledging the members may have conflicts but absolving them since no products were being approved. Several of the scientists responded feebly that it would be difficult to find advisers with no ties to drug makers.
Moreover, science policy experts say such conflicts are common at the FDA, which during the Bush Administration has served not as the consumer watchdog it is supposed to be but little more than a rubber stamp for the latest pharmaceutical ventures. Health and safety have become secondary to industry profits.
At the same time, the administration is putting on a full-court press in Congress to pass legislation limiting the right of individuals and groups to sue businesses over defective and dangerous products - like drugs.
It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to see a distinct and disturbing pattern in which the industry's agenda is being advanced at the expense of the best interests of the general public.