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State woos medicine makers with legislation
Bill would shield manufacturers from liability suits over FDA-approved drugs, devices
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Listen to Allison Wall of Georgia Watch explain why she opposes SB 101.

It’s not unusual for states to offer tax incentives to lure new industries. But in a bid to entice manufacturers of medical devices and pharmaceuticals, Georgia may go a step beyond.

Senate Bill 101, introduced last week in the Georgia General Assembly, would grant such companies, in some cases, immunity from civil lawsuits.

It would amend the Official Code of Georgia section 51-1-11, which pertains to product liability, and would apply only to products that have been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

The assumption is that such products have been proven safe, so there would be no legitimate reason to sue the manufacturer. The bill was filed by state Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, at the request of Gov. Sonny Perdue.

In a statement released Friday, Perdue said, "This legislation will make plain that the threat of meritless litigation is not a viable business strategy in Georgia."

Bert Brantley, spokesman for the governor, said he couldn’t think of any other industry in Georgia that is immune from civil lawsuits. But he said the state wants to aggressively pursue companies that make prescription drugs and medical devices.

"Our biotechnology industry is growing, but not as quickly as we’d like," he said.

Ideally, the bill would be passed before Atlanta holds the world’s largest biotechnology convention in May.

"(The conference) is a unique opportunity to show off what we have in Georgia," said Brantley. "We hope to draw more business here, and this (legislation) will be another tool in our toolbox."

Brantley said the biotech industry is eligible for the same tax incentives as any other business that is considering relocating to Georgia.

But state officials believe biotech needs an extra boost.

"The tax credit doesn’t help biotech as much, because when they first start up, they don’t have a product to sell," said Brantley. "It’s not like a company that makes car parts, which can have products coming off the assembly line as soon as the plant opens."

But not everyone thinks the biotech industry should get special treatment. Georgia Watch, a consumer advocacy group, has complained that the law would absolve companies of any responsibility if someone gets injured by a product.

Georgia Watch director Allison Wall said she is uneasy about relying on the FDA to determine whether a product is safe.

"There are a lot of products that have withdrawn recently that had FDA approval," she said.

Drugs have to be tested for safety in order to get clearance from the FDA. But there have been numerous cases in which drugs were pulled off the market only after they had been sold for years and millions of consumers had taken them.

The painkiller Vioxx is one of the best-known examples. It was approved by the FDA in 1999 and quickly became one of the most popular prescription drugs in history. But it turned out that Vioxx increased the risk of heart disease, and it was withdrawn from the market in 2004.

Wall said other states that already have a thriving biotech industry do not have laws granting companies immunity from lawsuits, so she doesn’t see why the legislation is needed in Georgia.

"Where has this worked in other states?" she said.

Brantley said the only state he knows of that has a similar immunity law is Michigan.

Wall thinks SB 101 is unlikely to create new jobs in Georgia, and its only effect may be to deprive consumers of a legal option.

"The answer I’m looking for from the governor’s office is why he believes this is a good thing for the state of Georgia," she said.

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