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Vioxx and personal liberty

A recent column by Thomas Sowell titled Free lunch ‘safety’: Part II (a link to part one is here) started with this paragraph:

“The government will allow you to risk your life for the sake of recreation by sky-diving, mountain climbing or any number of other dangerous activities. But it will not allow you to risk your life for the sake of avoiding arthritis pain by taking Vioxx.”

I was quite astonished to see the issue of Vioxx framed this way, but it is perfectly valid to do so.

It appears that taking large doses of Vioxx increased the risk of a cardiovascular event by a factor of two. In other words, people taking large doses are twice as likely to be afflicted as those who were on placebo.

That may seem like a large increase in risk. Consider, however, the risk of some other common activities. The death rate for motorcyclists in 2001 was 33.4 deaths per 100 million miles traveled. Passenger car riders have a death rate of 1.3 per 100 million miles traveled, a rate just 4% of that for motorcyclists. Yet riding a motorcycle is perfectly legal. The success of Harley-Davidson in manufacturing and selling them is saluted.

Now compare the value of the pleasure of riding a motorcycle with relief from the pain of arthritis. And it’s not just a little ache in the knee once in a while. Many arthritis sufferers are in constant misery, and Vioxx helped some. An informed decision by the patient and doctor to accept an increase in the risk of a cardiovascular event in exchange for relief from miserable pain should be allowed. (That is, unless patients start to feel so well that they take up motorcycling.) But the hysterical media coverage of events like this, along with swarms of attorneys advertising for plaintiffs, eliminates this choice for patients and their doctors.

Dr. Sowell’s article makes the point that drug companies like the makers of Vioxx are “denounced for ‘corporate greed’ by making money at the risk of other people’s lives.” But what about the motorcycle manufacturers and companies that promote dangerous recreational activity? Are they similarly denounced?

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