By Ryan Abbott
Government regulation of off-label promotion by pharmaceutical companies is now an important First Amendment issue. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has historically restricted truthful and non-misleading speech by pharmaceutical companies under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). The FDCA prohibits introducing “misbranded” products into interstate commerce. The FDA has interpreted this to prohibit pharmaceutical companies recommending uses not already approved by the agency (these uses appear in a drug’s labeling). Drugs promoted for unapproved uses may also be considered “new” drugs which require FDA approval. Pharmaceutical companies can also face liability under the False Claims Act for off-label promotion.
United States v. Caronia was the first time the FDCA’s misbranding provisions were successfully challenged under the First Amendment. In 2012, the Second Circuit held that the FDA’s regulations failed the test for commercial speech announced in Central Hudson. Namely, the Court held that restricting truthful speech did not directly advance a government interest (rather, the regulations paternalistically prevented dissemination of truthful information), and the Court held that the FDA’s regulations were more extensive than necessary. The Court did not even analyze the regulations under the test announced in Sorrell v. IMS Health, decided by the Supreme Court in 2011, which held that heightened scrutiny was warranted where restrictions are content- and speaker-based. The FDA did not seek en banc review or writ of certiorari.
Almost immediately, the case was heralded as a landmark decision that would have a profound impact on drug regulation. However, that has yet to occur. Since the case was decided the FDA has already generated large settlements with companies like Amgen for violating agency regulations on off-label promotion. That may be because of uncertainty regarding Caronia’s reach, and because for large companies a relatively cheap settlement makes more sense than risking felony indictments and exclusion from government programs. For the agency’s part, it has tried to avoid fully vetting constitutional issues surrounding its regulations. The FDA stated after Caronia that the ruling would not alter its enforcement policy. Although, the agency has stated it is developing new guidances concerning off-label promotion.
The newest development in this story came last month in Amarin vs. United States. Continue reading