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David Kessler is Watching
Jeff Dorough • Trust us.  We're the FDA.
May 1998

Yale Medical School Dean David Kessler hates cigarettes. He is none too fond of liberty or people’s ability to make informed choices. He does not even like orange juice. Throughout his term as head of the Food and Drug Administration, he proved himself to be a friend of the regulators and managers rather than the common (read “ignorant”) man who loves pleasure and liberty. After all, while he was at the FDA Kessler noted, “The American public does not have the knowledge to make wise health care decisions. …The FDA is the arbiter of truth. …Trust us. We will tell you what’s good for you.” No clearer statement of the regulators’ worldview could be imagined.

As head of the FDA, Kessler had a thick record of decisions many would consider unwise at best, stupid or lethal at worst. All of these decisions, whatever their differences of degree, demonstrated an urge to label, regulate, and restrict.

We will examine the merely silly first. In 1991, Kessler, as defender of American welfare, took on one of the greatest enemies known to mankind—the orange juice industry. Few know the hidden dangers of orange juice, but Kessler foiled an evil plot by Proctor & Gamble to label their orange juice fresh when it contained concentrate! Concentrate, by God! Thank goodness Kessler was there to seize those 40,000 dangerous gallons, otherwise we stupid Americans might have inadvertently ingested orange juice concentrate thinking it was fresh orange juice.

And as for all of those idiotic Americans who took Flintstones vitamins as kids or take Centrum now, they little knew how wrong they were. In 1993, Kessler had vitamins labeled as food supplements so the FDA could regulate, restrict, or ban them. Only after Kessler left did the FDA come out in support of vitamin use.

From the ridiculous we rapidly descend to the grim. Kessler is perhaps best known for his campaign against tobacco, and so we might expect to find in him a fierce fighter against cancer. Yet he took it upon himself to withhold potentially lifesaving cancer treatments from patients while the FDA investigated their effectiveness. Of course, those dying from cancer were very concerned about these treatments, and it is unlikely that they appreciated Kessler’s protecting them from experimental treatments for a full five years.

Kessler also kept AIDS patients from making their own decisions about experimental treatments. Many AIDS activists condemned Kessler for keeping potentially life-extending AIDS treatments off the market. If only they had realized that “the FDA is the arbiter of truth.”

The FDA’s slowness in approving drugs and other medical supplies may be, in some cases, a product of careful investigation. Doctors are better able to judge adverse side effects of drugs than patients are. Yet once such side effects are known, experimental treatments should be made available to patients who are willing to chance them.

We should get a hint that Kessler went beyond reasonable delays and regulations when even the United States Congress—that well-known friend of liberty and foe of state management—condemned his policies. Congress published a report denouncing Kessler for driving small companies that make medical devices out of business. Apparently, Congress feels that Kessler’s painstaking, multi-year research into the effectiveness of these devices (even when they have been approved in less civilized places like Japan and Europe) makes it impossible for these businesses to make money.

Unfortunately, the problems with Kessler are symptomatic of the greater problem of doctors entering the political sphere. Doctors tend to look at every decision as a medical one, in which the only important factor in decision-making is the effect on the body. A substance or action is either helpful or harmful, and all decisions must flow from that. However, that is not all that the political sphere involves.

Take tobacco, for instance. Of course, cigarettes are not good for you, and anyone with half a brain can tell you that. No one is blind to the huge Surgeon General’s warnings on the side of a pack of Marlboros, and few people (especially smokers) doubt that nicotine is addictive.

For those in the medical field, the issue seems like a simple one: Smoking is dangerous and leads to death, therefore everyone should stop smoking. For doctors it is as simple as saying that driving off a cliff is dangerous and leads to death, therefore people should not do it.

However, people continue to smoke despite all of the information we have about tobacco’s potential dangers. Cross Campus is full of people who decide against good health and smoke anyway. I am not sure if medical personnel fully understand this. The only explanation people like Kessler can come up with for this phenomenon is that people are just too stupid to decide for themselves. Therefore, the government should step in and act as the parent, stopping people from engaging in personally destructive behavior like smoking.

Unfortunately, these doctors miss the point entirely. They fail to make decisions that take into account people’s desires. They do not understand that people enjoy pleasure, and deserve to use their God-given liberty to seek pleasure. People do not smoke as a health aid, they smoke because nicotine gives a great little high and can relax a person better than an hour’s nap.

Contrary to what Kessler and others believe, people are perfectly capable of making their own decisions about the way they live. People eat fatty foods because they are good—Big Macs are better than dining hall soyladas any day of the week—and people drink to be social. None of these things are good for people, but they do them anyway because they enjoy them. There is something more important than quantity of life, and that is quality of life.

Furthermore, people have a basic right to do these things. The government should not be concerned about people’s enjoyment of life, and it certainly should not try to regulate those activities. So what if the American people do not live perfectly Puritanical lives, eating bean sprouts and tofu and getting a full day’s balance of vitamins and minerals? Maybe people do not jog every day or get enough sleep. But again, none of this is any concern of the government.
Therefore, doctors like Kelly Brownell and David Kessler who do not understand people’s desire for, and right to, pleasure should stay far away from the political arena where decisions are not limited to the black and white issues of health. Political decisions concern personal wants and needs, as well as the proper respect for freedom and the belief that individuals can make their own decisions. The government did not know best during Prohibition, and it does not know best now.

—Jeff Dorough is a freshman in Trumbull College

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