Is There A Thing As Too Much Safety?

No one wants to be killed via a bad drug, right?  Safety is important!  But is there such a thing as too much safety?  Perhaps there is.  Let’s examine this question though the lens of economics: though a cost-benefit analysis.  But, let’s look at this in terms, not of money, but in lives.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that it takes the FDA 10 years to approve a drug for sale in the US market.  Those 10 years come with a cost in life: people who, if taking the drug, would survive but die instead.*  Let’s say that number is 100 lives (10 per year).  The benefit comes from those who, once the drug is approved, survive given a certain success rate.  Let’s say that number is 5/yr.  It would take 20 years for the drug on the market for it to “break even” in terms of lives saved vs lives lost during testing.  That’s a long time (a generation).  However, if the testing period were shortened , say to 5 years, it would take only a decade to “break even.”  The cost, in terms of lives lost, would be lower.  There is a benefit, in this example, to reducing the FDA’s regulatory ability.

“Well, that’s all well and good,” you might say, “but this is a hypothetical example.  In the real world, we don’t know what the outcome of drug trials may be!”  This is quite true: the FDA could rush through an approval that turns out to be unwarranted and costs more lives.  However, this is only tangential to my point, which is the cost-benefit analysis economists do can provide some insight into the “right” regulatory process: if the process is too long and doesn’t provide any additional benefits but incurs further costs, we may wish to reduce the regulatory burden.**

Cost-benefit analysis (which, as we have seen, needn’t be limited to just monetary costs/benefits) is a useful tool for assessing claims by those who lament deregulation and/or call for more regulation.  It could be such regulation would cause more harm than good!  (Likewise the opposite is also true: it could be the deregulation causes more harm than good)

*This is an extreme example.  We could easily have said “people who suffer instead” and the point would remain the same.  But allow me some dramatic flair.

**There is some evidence to this position, but I will refrain from making a judgement call at this time, sticking to the hypothetical.

4 thoughts on “Is There A Thing As Too Much Safety?

  1. Any time you hear the phrase, ” there is no cost too great if it would save a human life”, you know you are talking to someone who can’t think logically.

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  2. The incentives faced by those at the FDA are not to reduce total deaths, but to avoid blame. There is hell to pay when an approved drug causes problems, but there’s no penalty for allowing people to continue dying prior to approval.


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