Try a pharmacist as FDA chief
Are you satisfied with the performance of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? A lot of people, myself included, are not.
For years, the multibillion-peso herbal industry has been ripping off the public, as witness the proliferation of leaves being sold as medicine to gullible people. Why wouldn’t herbal companies rake in billions of pesos when they just grind plant leaves into powder that is then put into capsules, making the people believe that these can cure whatever ails them? Every few months, a new herbal supplement is introduced in the market, like the malunggay leaves ground into powder, sold as capsules, and endorsed by a weather forecaster. You’d be better off buying the leaves in the public market, which you can cook with other vegetables and serve as a dish for lunch or dinner.
Witness the huge billboards advertising this or that herbal product. Listen to the commercials on television and radio. They are ripping off the unsuspecting public. And the FDA is not doing anything to inform the public that these are just food supplements that have no curative powers.
The only thing that the FDA has required of herbal companies is to put the disclaimer “No therapeutic claims” on the product box. But how many Filipinos know what that means? And on the contrary, the herbal advertisements and literature in the packaging claim that the product can cure almost everything from the common cough to high blood pressure and cancer.
Former health secretary Esperanza Cabral wanted the warning, stated in Filipino, that these products are not medicine and cannot cure anything. But the herbal manufacturers blocked it, and Cabral’s term ended without that warning being implemented.
The excuse of the FDA is that it has no jurisdiction over herbals because these are not drugs but only food supplements. But that’s just it: These are being packaged and marketed as medicine in pill, capsule, or syrup form, accompanied with all sorts of claims involving their alleged curative powers.
The FDA is supposed to protect the public, but it has failed to do so. It is strange that the FDA, which has regulatory powers over products that eat up more than half of household expenditures, is getting very little attention from the public and policymakers. In fact, the FDA director general, Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go, has quietly resigned without being noticed.
In the FDA’s more recent history, mostly doctors were put at the helm. This is logical because the FDA is concerned with public health, particularly the collection of samples, analyses, testing and inspection of health products before these are allowed to enter the market. But with the FDA seemingly unable to curtail the proliferation of fake, substandard, contaminated and other hazardous health products, it may be prudent for President Aquino and Health Secretary Enrique Ona to consider other professional qualifications. Just last August, a complaint was filed against the FDA over the sale of banned slimming products.
A lot of people have suggested that instead of another doctor, maybe P-Noy and Ona should try a pharmacist this time. After all, food and drugs are all about formulation, and who can best handle the intricacies of chemical formulations, including food and drug interactions, than a pharmacist? To avoid demoralization in the FDA ranks, they should also consider someone who has been in the FDA for years, not a doctor or a member of the academe who has no experience in managing an organization.
Sen. Pia Cayetano, author of Republic Act No. 9711 (or the Food and Drug Administration Act of 2009) is probably not happy with the way things are at the FDA. Five years after the enactment of the law, the FDA is still far from being the agency that she envisioned when she crafted the legislation. Probably before her term ends, she should look into the progress of the implementation of RA 9711, particularly since it is also crucial to the attainment of the objectives of the Universally Accessible Cheaper and Quality Medicines Act (RA 9502), another law that she authored.
For instance, what happened to the four centers in the Office of the FDA director general—the Center for Drug Regulation and Research, Center for Food Regulation and Research, Center for Cosmetics Regulation and Research, and Center for Device Regulatory Radiation Health and Research?
Another important aspect of RA 9711 that the Senate should look into is the FDA’s Special Regulatory Fund (SRF), or the income that the agency is allowed to retain under Section 31 of RA 9502 and all other laws that it is mandated to administer or implement. The purpose of the SRF is to make sure that the FDA will have sufficient funding to carry out its functions, especially the continuous testing of health products to protect Filipinos from hazardous products.
The public should also focus its attention to this issue. With ample public attention, maybe the administration will be more careful in the selection of the new director general of the FDA.
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