Merck's anti-inflammatory pain-reliever Vioxx was the most widely used drug to be pulled off the market, which Merck was forced to do in 2004. The biggest story about Vioxx is that Merck suppressed and manipulated data to make Vioxx seem less risky than it was. But when people started having heart attacks while taking it and thousands of lawsuits seemed imminent, Merck stopped selling Vioxx.
There was a lot of controversy over an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, which revealed that some Merck scientists knew about unfavorable data but didn't report it in their original paper in that same journal, and this editorial accused them of deliberately omitting those results in order to fool doctors and the public into thinking Vioxx was safer than it was. Merck, of course, rationalized and defended their choices, but I think there is strong evidence that they baldly lied to sell a drug that they knew was dangerous to a large proportion of the people who would be taking it.
Such actions probably warrant life imprisonment.
Episodes like this make libertarians say that our already-oppressive regulatory structure doesn't protect people all that well, so abolishing the FDA and allowing multiple companies and organizations to advocate or denounce drugs in a free and competitive market would be both more efficient and safer. On the other hand, episodes like this cause Statists to say we need more, more, ever more regulation and oversight and tax-confiscation and tax-spending in order to ensure that people aren't killed by deceitful companies who care more about profits than lives.
It is unclear how, in a free society, killing people could be profitable, but Statists were never that good at imagining how anything would work in a free society.
One way or the other, what this clearly shows is that, at least in our current State-dominated world, professional criminals aren't the only ones who lie, cheat, and steal from others for personal gain, and science conducted by private companies in the pursuit of profits in the (not-so-free) market is prone to deadly bias.
Interestingly enough, this post does have a point: I wonder to what extent the FDA's system for approving and banning drugs led Merck to omit data and then lie about omitting it? What I'm thinking is: the FDA has the ultimate say about whether a drug is available to everyone or not available to anyone (effectively, in the world, not just in the U.S.). Sure, it approves of drugs all the time (indeed, all drugs) that pose certain risks to certain people, but it evaluates the benefits and risks and makes companies provide the proper warnings, and doctors typically prescribe it only when the risk isn't too great. There are many, many people who have a relatively low risk of cardiovascular events from Vioxx, especially when the patient would only be taking it for a short time. So if a young person without a history of cardiovascular problems only needs it for 2-4 weeks, almost any doctor in the world would prescribe it to him and no short- or long-term detriment would be evident. If Merck or any other company trying to get a drug approved thinks that the FDA will ban its drug everywhere and forever, even for the low-risk patients, it might be inclined to skew the results to get its drug on the market. On the other hand, if it were perfectly acceptable to market a drug to a small subset of the population, since the drug posed too much risk to another subset of potential patients, the company wouldn't have to fear unilateral prohibition and zero profit from the drug.
No, don't tell me I'm making excuses for lies that led to people's deaths; as I already made clear, I think it's despicable and criminal. I'm just wondering out loud whether a different drug-rating system, like that which might exist in a free society, would lead to more openness and honesty about drugs, since openness and honesty wouldn't result in a drug being banned for everyone in the world. I don't know much about the FDA's drug evaluation and banning system; I'd like to hear what you think about the current state of affairs and the mechanisms that might exist in a free society. It's possible that openness and honesty about a drug's risks still don't lead the FDA to ban it for everyone, as we can see from all the warnings that accompany drug commercials and prescriptions.