Counter Argument


The Competitive Enterprise Institute is siding with pharmaceutical companies who say their products should not be switched from prescription to over-the-counter status unless they request the change. The issue was raised by a petition in which WellPoint Health Networks asked the Food and Drug Administration to make several allergy drugs available without a prescription. The manufacturers opposed the switch.

Clearly, there are financial interests on both sides of this controversy. Insurers, which usually do not cover over-the-counter drugs, are trying to minimize their costs. Drug companies, which may calculate that they can make more by selling fewer units at a higher, insurer-subsidized price, are trying to maximize their profits. As for consumers, those with drug coverage end up paying more when a drug moves to the OTC category, while those without drug coverage save money as the price goes down.

But the appropriate policy should not be based on the question of whose ox is gored. Does a drug maker have a right, as CEI suggests, to keep its products in the prescription-only category? CEI says it's wrong for the FDA "to force drug manufacturers to switch prescription-only drugs to over-the-counter." Yet the FDA would not be forcing drug manufacturers to do anything. It would be lifting a legal requirement that restricts consumer freedom. It would be making the market for drugs a little bit freer by allowing people to obtain a few more of them without getting permission from a government-appointed gatekeeper. It's hard to see why CEI, which has an admirable record of supporting economic freedom and opposing paternalism, would want to maintain such barriers.