Thursday, December 30, 2004

It is a fact of American journalism that it is almost always in a state of agitation. Its practitioners should, with a few notable exceptions, be on medication at all times.

For the newsrooms of America I would prescribe one of the many fine tranquilizers produced by leading pharmaceutical companies.

An example of the agitation afflicting my unsedated colleagues is the enormous pother they have created over another of the pharmaceutical companies’ wonders: painkillers.

One, Vioxx, when taken in very high dosages for a long time, is suspected of causing cardiovascular problems for a small number of patients. Two others, Celebrex and Aleve might, in huge doses for a long time, cause similar problems. The makers of Vioxx imprudently hauled it off the market — an invitation for the trial lawyers to pounce.

The makers of Celebrex and Aleve have acted more prudently. They understand the danger posed by their medications is slight and that tens of thousands of Americans with chronic pain face dreadful misery without them.

Yet the journalists’ agitation continues and moves from unwarranted alarm about a painkiller to Great Expectations about a newer painkiller, one that sounds grisly to me, something called Prialt. It is made from poison found in the South Pacific cone snail. Yes, poison. Scientists and journalists are giddy in anticipation of a similar painkiller made from fluids of tree frogs.

Of the snail-venom-laced painkiller Richard L. Rauck, of Wake Forest University and the Carolina Pain Institute exclaims: “This drug is very exciting because it’s a very potent analgesic but isn’t a narcotic.” Very exciting indeed. Wait until it is discovered Prialt’s baseline risk for cardiovascular disease over time is not less than 1 percent but actually 11/2 percent.

Then the trial lawyers will be ringing up the snail venom users. The press will echo with charges Prialt’s producer knew all along the stuff was deadly. And forget not the case that will be made by animal rights activists when they discover the impending depletion in the world’s South Pacific cone snails.

The increase in baseline risk I mention as a possibility in Prialt’s future is not a product of my imagination. It was precisely this shift in Vioxx’s baseline threat that transformed it into a matter of hysteria in the press. In the study that indicted Vioxx, the number of cardiovascular events per 1,000 was 15 for the group using Vioxx in large dosages for 18 months. The number of cardiovascular events per 1,000 was 71/2 for the group using a placebo. Rather than bring in the Feds and the trial lawyers, I think such findings should let doctors and patients decide if they wanted a slight risk increase or lasting pain.

Instead, we now have journalistic hysteria over the Giant Pharmaceuticals and their alleged reckless pursuit of profit. The trial lawyers’ pursuit of profit will get little attention.

Witnesses will turn up insisting they recognized the pain killer’s dangers all along. They will claim Vioxx’s producer did too. Let me say it now: I seriously doubt that in litigious America any pharmaceutical company would risk putting a drug on the market knowing it to be dangerous. All medications have side effects, some of them quite serious. The important question is the side effects’ severity and frequency. My guess is Vioxx’s severity and frequency are within tolerable bounds.

The suffering of patients who no longer can use Vioxx has received little attention. Certainly suffering can lead to death.

The Wall Street Journal notes ironically it might be good that a growing list of painkillers is being attacked in the press. Suffering Americans need painkillers. As the list of painkillers with side effects lengthens, the public may be moved to a sensible conclusion. Powerful medications have side effects. The afflicted and their doctors can decide what is best for them — in the case of Vioxx more pain or a slight increase in the chance of cardiovascular disease.

The answer to the current hysteria over painkillers is more information and more consumer freedom — nothing more.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor in chief of the American Spectator, a contributing editor to the New York Sun, and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute.

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