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US: Opposition to Drug Co. Liability Protection Grows

by  Brendan CoyneThe New Standard
January 2nd, 2006

With enactment of a $453 billion defense spending bill at hand, opposition is growing over a provision granting pharmaceutical companies wide protection from lawsuits. The nation’s leading autism advocacy organization joined consumer watchdogs and medical associations in asking lawmakers to drop the provision before the bill becomes law.

Supporters of the measure, which passed last week, maintain that it is the only way to protect companies from lawsuits that hamper productivity and exploration.

As written, the law would shield drug companies and healthcare providers from lawsuits over the safety of the medicine they dispense, as long as their actions are deemed necessary to the nation’s health by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

In a statement Monday, the National Autism Association (NAA) termed the measure "an affront to democracy" and warned that it will undermine drug safety in the nation.

"Such drastic changes to public health and our judicial system should have been open for public debate, not slipped in surreptitiously to unrelated, must-pass legislation," NAA president Wendy Fournier said. "These behind-the-scenes tactics were necessary because of the unconstitutional provision to rob injured citizens of their rights."

The NAA statement also points out that one of the suspected causes for the dramatic increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism in recent decades was the mercury commonly used as a preservative in vaccines until the late 1990s.

"Families of vaccine-injured children have witnessed the emotional, physical, and financial devastation caused by the pharmaceutical industry’s reckless disregard for safety standards," said Fournier. "Now, the misplaced priorities of Senate leadership have sacrificed public health and basic civil rights to the greed of an industry willing to overlook safety concerns for the sake of profit."

Last week, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR) released a report showing that nearly half of the Senate – 15 Democrats and 27 Republicans – together with their families own over $16 million in pharmaceutical company stocks, a situation FTCR and other consumer groups say represents a conflict of interest as the lawmakers consider legislation that could benefit them financially.

Despite these concerns, supporters of the bill say it will give drug companies a needed protection against frivolous litigation, thereby encouraging experimentation and providing an incentive for companies to work on vaccines and other medical measures.

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