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Patient Beware: Off-label drug promotion by pharmaceutical companies

In truth, physicians are rarely this happy to see a drug rep.

In truth, physicians are rarely this happy to see a drug rep.

Pharmaceutical companies and their sales reps can distribute information, such as medical journal articles, about unapproved (“off-label“) uses of their drugs as long as they adhere to FDA guidelines. However, the FDA takes the position that this information must be distributed separately from information that is “promotional in nature,” i.e., for marketing purposes, a position that is now open to question.

Off-label promotion of a drug for a use that has not been approved by the FDA is, in the FDA’s view, a violation of the federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDC Act). It is subject to criminal prosecution, because promoting a drug for new, unapproved uses is evidence of an intent that the drug be used before it has gone through the extensive process of clinical trials and a review of the evidence of safety and efficacy by a panel of experts, as required by law before a drug can be marketed. Thus, off-label promotion is seen as an end-run around the approval process that perverts the purpose of the FDC Act, which is to protect the public from ineffective and unsafe drugs.

Studies show that personal sales visits to physicians by pharmaceutical reps (called “detailing”) drives prescriptions in favor of the drugs being promoted. This is true even though physicians’ view of detailing ranges from neutral to highly negative, a “necessary evil,” and physicians are aware of potential conflicts of interest these visits precipitate.

While there are restrictions on off-label promotion, off-label prescribing by a physician is not illegal. Physician practice is regulated by the states and not within the jurisdiction of the FDA. In fact, off-label prescribing is considered both ethical and within the standard of care in appropriate circumstances. (I am currently taking a drug for an off-label use, and was informed of this, plus the risks and benefits, by my physician prior to his prescribing it.) It is also common, according to an article by law professors Ryan Abbot and Ian Ayers in the Duke Law Journal, which is well worth reading:

for the 3 leading drugs in each of the 15 leading drug classes, off-label use accounts for approximately 21% of prescriptions. Moreover, off-label uses may be the norm in some areas of practice, such as oncology, pain management, and palliative care, and in some patient populations, such as children, the elderly, and the severely ill. For example, about 80 percent of all drug prescriptions for children are off-label, and between 80 and 90 percent of all drug prescriptions for rare diseases are off-label. [Footnotes omitted.]

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Ethics, Legal, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Supreme Court Saves Nation’s Immunization Program

The Supreme Court of the United States made a ruling the other day that has profound implications for the health of millions of children. Since October 12, 2010, The Court has been quietly deliberating the case of Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, inc. The case centers on Russell and Robalee Bruesewitz’s allegation that their 18 year old daughter, Hannah, was irreversibly injured by a DTP vaccine she received when she was 6 months old. What is important about this case is not the allegation itself (I will discuss its merits, or lack thereof, in a moment), but the ramifications the ruling has for the future of childhood immunization in this country. The Supreme Court’s ruling against the Bruesewitz’s and in favor of the U.S. vaccination program was the right one, and safeguards our children from the irrationality of the anti-vaccine movement. Some important background is necessary here to understand why this is so.

Prior to the development of effective vaccines, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis were common diseases, terrifyingly familiar to all parents. Death records from Massachusetts during the latter half of the 1800’s indicate that diphtheria caused 3-10% of all deaths. In the first part of the 20th century, these dreaded organisms still caused illness in hundreds of thousands of people each year in the United States. These are devastating diseases which, if not resulting in death, often produced severe and permanent damage to those afflicted. In the 1920’s, vaccines against each of these scourges were finally developed, and in the mid 1940’s the combined DTP vaccine was introduced. The vaccines were so effective that cases of these deadly infections were practically eliminated. Today, few parents know the terror once routinely wrought by these pathogens.

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Posted in: Legal, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Wyeth Vs. Levine: Joe Six Pack Trumps The FDA

The New York Times has called today’s US Supreme Court ruling in the Wyeth vs. Levine suit the “most important business case in years.” I have been following this case for many months, astonished that a medical malpractice suit had gotten all the way to the Supreme Court. But even more shocking is the fact that the court actually ruled that lay juries may evaluate the accuracy of FDA-approved drug labels written for healthcare professionals.

In other words, after a team of FDA regulators decide on the very best language to describe potential risks of a drug –  Joe Six Pack can overrule their expertise and hold the drug company liable for any deficit (as he interprets it) in label language, awarding millions to anyone who experiences harm, no matter how well disclosed that risk is.

I reached out to Wyeth’s attorney, Bert Rein, for comment. Here are the highlights from the interview (a podcast is available here)…

Dr. Val: The New York Times is calling Wyeth vs. Levine the most important business case in years. Can you summarize what just happened?

Rein: The court determined that Wyeth’s liability for Ms. Levine’s injury was not preempted by the FDA-approved drug label warnings. They were not convinced that the FDA had declined to strengthen the warning language on the label prior to Ms. Levine’s injury, though Wyeth had in fact requested a label change. In addition, the court held that the FDA’s regulatory regime was insufficient to preempt Ms. Levine from suing Wyeth, because the FDA doesn’t have a regulational requirement for all label updates to undergo federal approval. The court therefore ruled that the suit was well founded and that the state of Vermont should decide whether or not Wyeth’s conduct was appropriate.

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Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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