Shining Light on Sunscreen Policy

Shining Light on Sunscreen Policy

Once in a while, there's good news to report. The Wall Street Journal notes that "major pharmaceutical companies are racing to launch breakthrough drugs in the next 18 months to treat advanced melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer."

Great -- if the drugs are approved by federal regulators, which is far from a sure thing. After all, when it comes to preventing skin cancer, drug technology gets older every year.

The Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved a new sunscreen ingredient since 1999. That's not because there's a lack of chemicals in the pipeline. People in Europe, Asia, and South America are already putting on advanced sunscreens that promise to be more effective and more comfortable than those available in the United States.

There are eight applications for sunscreens pending, and some have been waiting for more than a decade. Even the FDA admits it's mired in bureaucracy. "I think, if possible, we are more frustrated than the manufacturers and you all are about this situation," the agency's Janet Woodcock told lawmakers last year. She blames a lengthy rule-writing process for the delay, but it's the FDA itself that put that process in place.

Ironically, Progressives sold the administrative state to Americans with the claim it would enhance efficiency. Experts, instead of elected officials, would competently handle the business of the modern state.

But as the bureaucracy grinds to a halt, lawmakers act as if they're powerless. They hold hearings to complain to bureaucrats that the job isn't being done. But they don't follow through. For example, last April the FDA commissioner told lawmakers sunscreen would be "one of the highest priorities" of her agency. Yet as another summer approaches, the same old sunscreens will be on store shelves. Lawmakers could pass a law reorganizing the FDA, could eliminate it, or could at least reassign its drug-approval process. Instead, they act as if they're powerless bystanders.

Sunscreens aren't the only area in which the FDA is stifling innovation. In the near future, Americans should be able to monitor their vital signs with electronic apps and appliances such as smartphones. In fact, consumers can already download apps that measure blood pressure. But don't hold your breath that this technology will spread as quickly as it should.

"The FDA has not finished drawing up its rules," The Economist reports. "[Firms developing health-related mobile apps] are waiting for a framework on the use of information technology in health care from the FDA and two other agencies."

As a senior official for sunscreen maker BASF told the Washington Post, "The U.S. market is one of the largest markets in the world. If it's not open to new innovation, it's extremely limiting."

It would make sense to do a better job preventing skin cancer, and not just focus on treating it after it occurs. It would make sense to move quickly to approve health-monitoring apps. Unfortunately, federal policy doesn't make much sense.

Rich Tucker is a senior writer in the Heritage Foundation's B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics.

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