Pharma Turns Up Heat to Unchill Off-Label “Free Speech”

Off-Label Woolly Mammoth“FDA’s regulations censor manufacturers,” says the Medical Information Working Group (MIWG), an “informal” group of pharmaceutical companies that includes Allergan, Amgen, Boehringer Ingelheim USA, Eli Lilly & Co., GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Purdue Pharma, and sanofi-aventis U.S.

In a “friends of the court” brief to the court hearing the appeal  of the Caronia off-label promotion case (see here), the MIWG contends that a manufacturer that “speaks about the lawful off-label uses of its products subjects itself to potential enforcement action unless FDA and DOJ determine, in their sole discretion, that they will not treat the speech as evidence of an ‘intended use’ for the product. This creates a chill on manufacturers’ speech, which has serious potential consequences for physicians, patients, and the public health.”

Because of FDA’s regulations that “lack coherence and clarity,” MIWG claims physicians will have difficulty obtaining “objective, balanced, and accurate information on important unapproved uses of approved products.” Furthermore, MIWG contends that pharma companies are “uniquely positioned to provide physicians with such information.”

That’s rich, considering that the drug industry often has difficulty providing “objective, balanced, and accurate information” on APPROVED uses of drugs as evident from all the FDA warning letters, which address this difficulty (for a list of the most recent letters, see here).

Should the heat the drug industry is bringing against FDA’s off-label authority succeed, I envision off-label “woolly mammoths” (aka, sales reps) breaking free of the chilly ice and running amok among physicians offering “objective, balanced, and accurate information” – all without any oversight!

Much has been written about this legal issue, which you can find here, here, and here. Aside from the “objective, balanced, and accurate” claim, what caught my attention in the language of the brief was the overlap in the arguments presented with arguments pharma (eg, Pfizer) has made about how FDA should (or should not) regulate the promotion of Rx drugs via the Internet and social media.

On page 10 of the brief, for example, the argument is made that so-called “safe harbors” (eg, FDA guidelines for distribution of off-label reprints; see “FDA’s Good Reprint Practices Guidance“) are “not the product of formal rulemaking” and are “in most instances explicitly ‘non-binding’.” This was the argument Pfizer made against FDA issuing social media guidelines (see “Pfizer Asks for New FDA Regulations, Not Guidance, for Social Media“). As part of that argument, Pfizer said that “for FDA to regulate in this sensitive area [social media] through guidance instead of rulemaking inherently raises First Amendment concerns because of the nature of the process used to develop guidance, and the nature of the Agency pronouncements that result.” (NOTE: Both documents are written by some of the same lawyers.)

Another parallel appears on page 11 of the brief, which delves into “unsolicited requests.” The brief noted that FDA allows pharma company representatives (eg, paid physician speakers) to provide off-label information in response to an “unsolicited request” (eg, a question from the audience; perhaps from a physician “planted” in the audience for that specific purpose?).

Recall that the FDA’s 2011 guidance “agenda” called for the agency to issue guidance regarding “unsolicited requests” from any source, including the Internet. That particular guidance, says FDA, was part of its promised social media guidance (see “FDA Drops Social Media from Its 2011 Guidance Agenda“). Before FDA can do THAT, it has to contend with the legal issues raised by MIWG in its brief.

This push for an end to FDA’s off-label marketing ban is the latest industry action that puts the FDA in a very weakened position viz-a-viz issuing any marketing guidance (and certainly NOT social media guidance) for the foreseeable future. The industry hopes the court case in question — the Caronia off-label promotion case — will end up in the Supreme Court. In the meantime, FDA is probably thinking “let’s wait and see what happens before we issue any new guidance that ‘lacks coherence and clarity’.”

Issue: Vol. 10, No. 17
Publication date: 10 November 2011

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