How the FDA Produces Knowledge (and Is Not So Weird)

Credit: SalFalko

The Federal government has wrested billions of dollars from the drug and device industry in settlements of claims that the companies broke the law by promoting their products “off-label” for uses not approved by the FDA.  In response, companies have asserted that promotions are a form of speech, protected by the First Amendment. Speech regulations are especially worrisome when motivated by paternalism.  This argument has received some traction in the courts, and is now getting a favorable look by the Trump administration.

I have argued (here, here, and here) that this law is not actually a speech regulation.  Nor is it paternalistic.  Instead, it is simply a vanilla regulation of a behavior (shipment of product in interstate commerce), which depends on various sources of evidence (including speech) as revealing whether the actor has an illicit intent (an unapproved use of the product).  The pre-market approval system, which requires that companies prove safety and efficacy for all intended uses, solves a collective action problem to produce information as a public good.  This is our key social mechanism for producing knowledge about safety and efficacy.  If this law is unconstitutional in the off-label context, the entire pre-market approval system would seem to be as well.

In a new piece out on SSRN, my physician co-author Victor Laurion develops the example of the drug Seroquel XR, to show how a federal prosecution for off-label promotion caused the company to perform scientific research on two new indications (general anxiety disorder and major depression).  A detailed discussion of the regulatory record shows how physician prescribing was improved by this public information, regardless of whether the FDA approved the new indication.  In this way, the FDA protects the liberty of physicians and patients to try drugs for new uses, even while holding companies to the proof of any uses that they actually intend.  The fact that the company’s intention is shown by speech evidence is immaterial. Continue reading

Call for Papers – European Pharmaceutical Law Review (EPLR)

Dear Colleagues,

I am happy to announce that I have just joined the Board of Editors of the new journal “European Pharmaceutical Law Review” (EPLR). One of my first tasks is to spread the news about our “Call for Papers”. Further information is available here.

The European Pharmaceutical Law Review (EPLR) reports on key legislative developments in the EU and the Member States, and identifies and analyses important judgments that shape the interpretation and application of EU pharmaceutical law, in particular those by the European Courts, international courts and tribunals such as the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body, and higher national courts.

In order to establish itself as a forum for dialogue between different stakeholders in pharmaceutical regulation and governance, it will invite contributions from academics, practitioners, regulators and civil society representatives. Topics covered by EPLR include:

  • Pharmaceutical law and policy in all jurisdictions (regional, national, international);
  • Commission decisions (EMA opinions) and regulatory guidelines;
  • National EU, and International Jurisprudence;
  • Medical devices;
  • Borderline cases: pharmaceuticals/food/cosmetics/chemicals
  • Patents /Trademarks;
  • Health Technology Assessment and pricing/reimbursement;
  • Digital health/Big data;

All contributions will be subject to double blind peer-review before acceptance for publication and are required to conform to the author guidelines.

We are looking forward to receive and review the first submissions!

Best wishes/ Timo

Recent Developments in Off-Label Promotion

By Chris Robertson

July has been a busy month for those following the controversy around off-label promotion of drugs and devices.  As many on this blog know, federal law requires that prior to marketing any drug or device, companies must prove to the FDA’s satisfaction that it is safe and effective for all intended uses.  If the company reveals that it intends unapproved uses,  sales of the drug or device are illegal.  Nonetheless, physicians can prescribe “off-label,” and companies are free to sell for those known-but-not-intended purposes.

This carefully-wrought policy may seem convoluted, but it serves important epistemic and economic purposes, as I have argued elsewhere.  This month, I have a new draft paper on SSRN, assessing recent assertions of a First Amendment right to promote for uses not approved by the FDA, and consider whether such a right would be equally applicable to drugs that have no FDA-approved label at all. I worry that the entire pre-market approval regime may be at stake. Feedback on that intentionally-provocative analysis is quite welcome.

On Wednesday, two medical device company executives, were convicted of promoting a product “to deliver steroid medications to patients’ sinuses, though it was only approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for keeping sinuses open.”  The prosecutors thought the case was particularly egregious, because the company had intended the broader use to deliver medicine all along, but sought to mislead the FDA, denying it the chance review the safety and efficacy of the real intended use.  The jury instructions and verdict form  are particularly interesting, to see how the government’s trial strategy avoids the holding of a Second Circuit case of Caronia, which overturned a conviction on First Amendment grounds.  I’ll return with some analysis later. Continue reading

Legal Dimensions of Big Data in the Health and Life Sciences

By Timo Minssen

Please find below my welcome speech at last-weeks mini-symposium on “Legal dimensions of Big Data in the Health and Life Sciences From Intellectual Property Rights and Global Pandemics to Privacy and Ethics at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).  The event was organized by our Global Genes –Local Concerns project, with support from the UCPH Excellence Programme for Interdisciplinary Research.

The symposium, which was inspired by the wonderful recent  PFC & Berkman Center Big Data conference,  featured enlightening speeches by former PFC fellows Nicholson Price on incentives for the development of black box personalized medicine and Jeff Skopek on privacy issues. In addition we were lucky to have Peter Yu speaking on “Big Data, Intellectual Property and Global Pandemics” and Michael J. Madison on Big Data and Commons Challenges”. The presentations and recordings of the session will soon be made available on our Center’s webpage.

Thanks everybody for your dedication, inspiration, great presentations and an exciting panel discussion.

“Legal Dimensions of Big Data in the Health and Life Sciences – From Intellectual Property Rights and Global Pandemics to Privacy and Ethics”

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Monthly Round-Up of What to Read on Pharma Law and Policy

By Ameet Sarpatwari and Aaron S. Kesselheim

Each month, members of the Program On Regulation, Therapeutics, And Law (PORTAL) review the peer-reviewed medical literature to identify interesting empirical studies, in-depth analyses, and thoughtful editorials on pharmaceutical law and policy.

Below are the papers identified from the month of March. The selections feature topics ranging from the characteristics and follow-up of post-marketing studies or conditionally authorized medicines in the European Union; to changes in prescription drug, over the counter drug, and dietary supplement use among older adults in the United States; to an assessment of the logic of Amarin’s off-label promotion of Vascepa. A full posting of abstracts/summaries of these articles may be found on our website.

  1. Hey SP, Kesselheim AS. An Uninformative Truth: The Logic of Amarin’s Off-Label Promotion. PLoS Med. 2016 Mar 15;13(3):e1001978.
  2. Hoekman J, Klamer TT, Mantel-Teeuwisse AK, Leufkens HG, De Bruin ML. Characteristics and follow-up of post-marketing studies of conditionally authorised medicines in the EU. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2016 Mar 18. [Epub ahead of print].
  3. Kapczynski A. Free Speech and Pharmaceutical Regulation-Fishy Business. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Mar 1;176(3):295-6.
  4. Massey PR, Wang R, Prasad V, Bates SE, Fojo T. Assessing the Eventual Publication of Clinical Trial Abstracts Submitted to a Large Annual Oncology Meeting. 2016 Mar;21(3):261-8.
  5. Qato DM, Wilder J, Schumm LP, Gillet V, Alexander GC. Changes in Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medication and Dietary Supplement Use Among Older Adults in the United States, 2005 vs 2011. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Mar 21. [Epub ahead of print]
  6. Yeh JS, Sarpatwari A, Kesselheim AS. Ethical and Practical Considerations in Removing Black Box Warnings from Drug Labels. Drug Saf. 2016 Mar 21. [Epub ahead of print]

Taking A Data-Driven, Patient-Centric Approach To Pharmaceutical Company Communication With Health Care Professionals

This new post by James M. “Mit” Spears appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Fourth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 29, 2016.

This post is based in part on a debate which took place between Jerry Avorn and Mit Spears. After reading this piece, check out the counter argument. You can also watch a video of the debate.

The ability of pharmaceutical companies to provide information about medicines to health care professionals beyond that which is contained in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved labeling is a topic that has generated a great deal of discussion, particularly in light of the August 2015 Amarin decision rendered by a US District Court in the Southern District of New York, and the FDA’s recent settlement of the case.

In Amarin, Judge Paul Engelmayer ruled that the FDA’s regulation of information provided by pharmaceutical companies violated the First Amendment’s Commercial Speech doctrine to the extent that they prohibited the communication of truthful and non-misleading speech, even where the information provided went beyond the FDA-approved labeling. On March 8, FDA and Amarin settled the case in a way that preserves Amarin’s ability to share truthful, non-misleading information about its medicine. In fact, the FDA even agreed to provide advisory review of two such communications per year with a 60-day timeline.

This case followed on the heels of the Second Circuit’s 2013 decision in Caronia and the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling in Sorrell v. IMS Health, Inc., in which the Courts affirmed that the First Amendment’s protections of commercial speech extended to pharmaceutical companies and their employees. […]

Read the full post here.

The First Amendment And Pharmaceutical Promotion

This new post by Jerry Avorn appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Fourth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 29, 2016.

This post is based in part on a debate which took place between Jerry Avorn and Mit Spears. After reading this piece, check out the counter argument. You can also watch a video of the debate.

Traditionally, communication about medications has been granted a privileged status different from that accorded to other forms of communication. This makes sense for several reasons.

Unlike other marketplace transactions, most consumers are not able to acquire all the information they need to make appropriate purchasing decisions. This is obviously true of patients, but it is also true of doctors. Most physicians simply do not have the expertise or the time to review the voluminous information that a manufacturer submits to the Food and Drug Administration when it applies for approval of a new product. Even more important, a great deal of information provided to the FDA by a manufacturer is considered proprietary to that company. As a result, although this data is evaluated by FDA scientists, it is simply not accessible to physicians or patients outside of the agency.

Large teams of FDA scientists with expertise in pharmacology, clinical trials, epidemiology, statistics, and several other disciplines take six to 10 months to review the massive dossiers submitted by manufacturers to win drug approval. The idea that unfettered “commercial free speech” would make it possible for prescribers to come up with equally useful determinations on their own is simply implausible. […]

Read the full post here.

Why Senator Markey’s Message Hurts Children

Last week, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) placed a hold on the Senate’s nomination of Robert Califf’s as head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The move was less against Califf and more as political leverage against FDA’s approval of OxyContin. In August 2015, FDA approved OxyContin, a prescription painkiller, for pediatric patients ages 11 to 17. OxyContin is the painkiller most associated with United State’s prescription drug abuse epidemic, accounting for an increase in drug overdose and death over the last decade. FDA’s approval of OxyContin for children drew concern from Markey and others that the approval would lead to an increase in drug misuse for children and their family members. Markey, who has prioritized the fight against opioid addiction in his legislative agenda, hopes he can use the hold to convince FDA to reverse its August decision.

Senator Markey’s message is well intentioned, but may ultimately do more harm than good for children.

Before FDA approved OxyContin in August, children who suffered from severe, chronic pain due to cancer, extensive trauma, or serious surgeries had few drugs approved to treat their pain. Many physicians treating severe pain in children prescribed OxyContin off-label, without proof that OxyContin could safely and effectively treat children. These physicians often relied on their experience or intuition to not under or overprescribe the drug. FDA’s approval in August meant the pharmaceutical manufacturer finally provided physicians with instructions, backed by controlled studies, explaining how physicians could safely use OxyContin to treat children with severe pain. Continue reading

Government Regulation of Commercial Speech: is Amarin Pharma’s Breakout Moment?

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

Managing Off-Label Drug Use

Guest Post by Marc Rodwin

Last year Endo Pharmaceuticals paid just under $182 million to settle a Department of Justice prosecution over its illegal marketing of Lidoderm for uses that the FDA had not approved.[1]  This settlement reflects a widespread practice in which pharmaceutical firms illegally promote drugs for off-label uses. In recent years, pharmaceutical firm settlement agreements for off-label promotion have included Johnson and Johnson ($2.2 billion for off-label promotion of Risperdal, Invega and Natrecor);[2] Pfizer ($2.3 billion for off-label promotion of Bextra);[3] and GlaxoSmith Kline ($3 billion for off-label promotion of Avandia).[4]  However, the problem of off-label drug use is more complex than it appears.

Manufacturers are prohibited from marketing drugs off-label, that is, for purposes that the FDA has not found to be safe and effective. However, physicians may prescribe drugs off-label for a different therapeutic purpose, with a different dose or for a different category of patients than that on which the drug was tested. Physicians—with the manufacturer’s encouragement—prescribe off-label much more frequently than is justifiable and risk harming their patients. In fact, 70 percent of off-label uses lack significant scientific support.

Physicians value the right to prescribe off-label, but it is the pharmaceutical firms’ incentive to increase sales that drives this practice. More sales means increased profits, so manufacturers have financial incentives to promote off-label use. The First Amendment protects certain off-label promotion as commercial free speech. Furthermore, manufacturers sometimes engage in illegal off-label promotion when the expected revenue exceeds potential penalties.

Unmanaged off-label drug use compromises good medical practice and the FDA’s ability to protect consumers from unsafe and ineffective drugs. Yet typical reform proposals, such as stronger sanctions for illegal promotion, don’t eliminate the problem. Public policy should manage off-label drug use by tracking off-label prescribing, removing economic incentives to sell off-label, and evaluating the safety and effectiveness of off-label uses.

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