Drug Industry Gone to the Dogs

My dog is fat. Obese, even, if the FDA is to be believed. The arrival of my new-born son two years ago has meant fewer and fewer long runs on the weekends for me and the dog, as well as more and more table ‘scraps’ being hand-fed to the pooch by the boy. Tipping the scales at a whopping 90 pounds (or roughly 20 percent) over his ideal weight, BJ needs some help. Fortunately, last week the FDA approved the very first diet drug for dogs — a Pfizer product called derlotapide, to be marketed under the trade name Slentrol.

The introduction of a prescription-only diet drug for pets says a lot about a country. (It might suggest a thing or two about me personally as well, but let’s leave that for another day.) For example, the fact that Pfizer sees a big enough consumer demand in the United States to market such a product (it’s quite dangerous for humans, so there are no reasonable synergies to be had in targeting that very lucrative market) is a rather nice reflection of the success of our mostly free economy. Thanks to capitalism, technology, and industrialization, we Americans are wealthy enough to afford such luxuries.

Unfortunately, Slentrol’s approval also says something about the regulation of pharmaceuticals by the Food and Drug Administration, and the political pressure brought to bear on the agency by activist groups, the news media, and Congress. Last year, FDA approved for commercialization a measly 18 new drugs and 2 new biologics, and it approved only an annual average of just 23 during the W years, from 2001 to 2006. That’s down from a recent high of 53 in the Clinton Administration days of 1996, and an annual average of 32 from 1993 to 2000 (or an average of 29 if 1996’s unusually high number is thrown out).

Some observers have chalked up part of this downward trend to the increasing difficulty of tackling harder and harder diseases, and there is probably some truth to that. Health scientists picked all the low-hanging fruit in the pharmaceutical industry’s heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. But, does anyone doubt that much of the slowdown in new drug introductions has to do with the increasing scrutiny of FDA in the wake of such pseudo-crises as Vioxx? With a combination of looming price controls, hit-the-jackpot litigation, and political pressure to slow down new drug approvals, Americans may be on the verge of killing the goose that’s been laying golden eggs for us for over a century. Thank goodness we Americans lavish so much attention on our pets. If not for veterinary drugs, the pharmaceutical industry might really be in trouble.