Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Conservatism, Consumer Choice, and the Food and Drug Administration during the Reagan Era: A Prescription for Scandal

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Conservatism, Consumer Choice, and the Food and Drug Administration during the Reagan Era: A Prescription for Scandal

Article excerpt

Conservatism, Consumer Choice, and the Food and Drug Administration during the Reagan Era: A Prescription for Scandal, by Lucas Richert. Lanham, Lexington Books, 2014. viii, 221 pp. $90.00 US (cloth).

Lucas Richert frames the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) within the rise of conservatism, a force within the Republican Party and one that attracted Ronald Reagan as perhaps its exemplar. In this sense Conservatism, Consumer Choice, and the Food and Drug Administration during the Reagan Era is as much about the FDA as it is about the ideology that has attempted to constrict the agency. In this context the book may be best understood as an example of the triumph of conservatism in modem American life. Scholars have produced many studies of the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA. What Richert delivers is a political narrative of conservatism within the context of capitalism, scientific research, and the rise and fall of ideologies.

The author begins his treatment with a brief history of the FDA, tracing its roots to what one might call its proto inception in the US State Department in 1839. Much credit of course is due Upton Sinclair and Harvey Wiley in the first decade of the twentieth century, but the story is too well-known to merit treatment. Within this historical framework it is useful to trace changes in the scope of the FDA's authority. Over the short term Richert focuses sharply on Reagan as the catalyst of modem conservatism. Well-known was the president's penchant for portraying government as antithetical to freedom. Accordingly the discourse shifted toward the prospect of shrinking the size and scope of government. As president, Reagan had the federal government in mind, but plenty of his sycophants applied his principles to state and local governments. Reagan took aim at a number of federal agencies including the FDA. In this context arose questions about the FDA's actions. To what degree did the FDA have the authority to regulate drugs and other substances that Americans ingested? Did this authority conflict with freedom of choice? Did the FDA operate outside the confines of capitalism?

Richert explores the tensions within such inquiries, but authoritative judgments are difficult to make. The author stretches his chronology between 1974 and 2008 but spends much of his energy examining the 1970s and 1980s. During this era, pharmaceutical companies were eager that Reagan, certainly by the 1980s, diminish the regulatory powers of the FDA. In this context the innovation argument came to the fore as drug companies argued that federal regulations penalized them for pursuing new lines of research and developing truly novel therapies. …

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