Last week, we summarized PhRMA’s comments on the FDA’s proposed amendments to regulations regarding “intended uses.”  PhRMA showed how the FDA’s insistence that it could read manufacturer’s minds about intended uses made no sense on an evidentiary basis and ran afoul of First Amendment considerations.  Today, we’ll tip our cyber caps to the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed), which also issued well thought-out comments on the FDA’s proposal.  You can read the AdvaMed July 18, 2017 comments here

 

To begin with, the AdvaMed letter excels at doing that thing that judges yell at dumb litigators for not doing in their motions — stating what relief is sought.  AdvaMed puts it plainly: “FDA should abandon the Final Rule and instead return to its original and unambiguous proposal to remove the reference to ‘knowledge’ as set forth in FDA’s September 25, 2015 proposed rule regarding the definition of ‘intended uses.’”  What’s wrong with the FDA’s proposed rule?  It’s bad in its totality, including its reliance the “totality of the evidence” standard.  AdvaMed correctly states that “the ‘totality of the evidence’ standard is more outcome determinative than prescriptive.”  We are reminded of how Justice Black called judicial balancing tests pretentious cover-ups for courts doing whatever they felt like doing.  A totality of the evidence test would mean that the FDA would administer rough justice on a case-by-case basis, sans principle and sans predictability. 

 

That lack of predictability is particularly pernicious where the chilled communications are so critical to public health.  AdvaMed provides concrete examples of communications pertaining to both approved and unapproved medical devices that any right-minded person (and any person who thinks they might someday benefit from advanced drugs and devices – that is, everyone) would favor.  Such communications include training and technical support, educational meetings about clinical trials and development data, feedback from doctors on investigational development, information about real-world experiences with devices, and engagement with health care professionals on device innovation and improvement.  Plaintiff lawyers love to say that drug and device manufacturers have a duty to be the foremost experts on their own products.  The communications potentially chilled by the FDA’s vague, overbroad content-less regulation on “intended uses” are all necessary to facilitate such expertise.        

 

AdvaMed makes the same constitutional argument that PhRMA made, though with some different wrinkles.  AdvaMed discusses the Washington Legal Foundation case from 1998.  The FDA, which raps companies on the knuckles if they are poor at signal detection, should have seen that 1998 case as a very clear signal that its chokehold on truthful off-label communications was unconstitutional.  AdvaMed also does a fine job of applying the Central Hudson requirement that regulation of commercial speech must be narrowly-tailored to serve the governmental interest.   In its request for comments on the proposed rule, the FDA supplied examples of speech restrictions that mostly related to “activities and communications involving the distribution or promotion of illicit drugs.”  There are already non-speech sanctions (including the Controlled Substances act, as well as mail or wire fraud statutes) available to address such criminal activity. 

 

For one brief moment of lucidity, the FDA recognized that a manufacturer’s knowledge that a third party was using a product off-label was not the same thing as the manufacturer’s intent that such product be used off-label.  Then the FDA reversed field, and now we have this new proposed rule.  AdvaMed makes clear that “it is inappropriate to hold manufacturers responsible for the use of their products by third parties over whom they have no control.”  Fairness says as much.  So does a concern for unintended consequences.  The FDA has more than once acknowledged that collaboration between manufacturers and health care practitioners is essential to help develop new life-enhancing or –saving products.  But if manufacturers will be put on the hook for everything they know such collaborators are doing, how can the nature or frequency of such collaboration be unaffected?      

 

AdvaMed concludes its comments with a request that, if the FDA won’t do the right thing and completely back off its wrong-headed “totality of the evidence” test, it should at least issue three clarifications of what would NOT show an intended use: (1) legitimate scientific exchange, (2) truthful, nonmisleading communications, and (3) mere knowledge of third party unapproved uses.  In short, the AdvaMed comments are everything the FDA’s proposed rule is not: clear, fair, and protective of speech and scientific development.   

 

The FDA cannot get out of its own way on the issue of off-label communications. Its power to punish off-label promotion comes from an odd regulatory two-step, whereby off-label promotions are said to prove an indicated use not included in the label and, thus, not accompanied by adequate directions for use – making the product misbranded. The tortured path of this ‘logic’ should, by itself, render this off-label regulatory regime questionable, but the FDA’s recent reaffirmance of it amounts to incoherent defiance.

The FDA takes the position that a company’s truthful, non-misleading statements about off-label use can constitute evidence of an intended use outside the label.  Even while acknowledging that off-label use can be absolutely necessary for some maladies, and even while getting repeatedly clobbered by courts holding that truthful, non-misleading communications about off-label use are protected by the First Amendment, the FDA stubbornly asserts the power to clamp down on such speech.

The FDA’s effort to keep its clamp-down power has been clumsy.  In 2015, the FDA proposed a rule regarding the scope of intended use.  (We have been covering this issue all along. For example, here is a 2015 post by Bexis discussing how the FDA tip-toed into this area, hiding the off-label issue in a notice ostensibly about cigarettes.  Good idea.  After all, in the eyes of the anti-tobacco crowd, the First Amendment hardly exists for some companies.)  One silver lining in the FDA’s proposed rule was that the FDA would “not regard a firm as intending an unapproved new use for an approved or cleared medical product based solely on that firm’s knowledge that such product was being prescribed or used by doctors for such use.”  What a refreshing and rare connection to fairness and reality! It did not last. In the Final Rule published earlier this year, the FDA insists on its right to consider evidence of mere knowledge of off-label use as part of a dreaded “totality of the evidence” standard.  Let the chilling commence.

But the effective date of this misguided Final Rule has been postponed until March 19, 2018.  In the meantime, interested parties may comment.  An extraordinarily thoughtful comment comes from the PhRMA organization, which represents pharmaceutical manufacturers.  Perhaps some will resist reading PhRMA’s July 18, 2017 letter with objectivity, being biased about alleged bias, but you can read it here.  You can see for yourself how the FDA’s not-so Final Rule runs counter to reality and the rule of law.

Here, in summary, are PhRMA’s main points:

1.  FDA cannot establish an intended use absent an external statement by the manufacturer about that use.

The PhRMA letter does a nice job of marshaling precedent and historical practice to prove that the intended use of a product “can be manifested only if the manufacturer conveys that intent to someone who is in a position to buy” the product.  Without that limiting principle, the FDA could attempt to establish a broader intended use via various internal communications.  This is a concern we feel acutely when defending our clients against private party litigations.  One reason that discovery is so ludicrously expensive and burdensome is that plaintiffs want to collect every internal document mentioning the product at issue, looking for some stray someone at sometime saying something that sounds bad, even though it does not represent a final position, or the position of the company at all. Mind-reading is a fool’s errand.  The only reliable evidence is what the company actually said and did in terms of persuading others how to use its products.  Forest Gump might say that ‘off-label is as off-label does.’  A more limited approach focusing on external statements makes sense, serves fairness and judicial economy and, perhaps most important, is fully supported by cases going back at least as far as 1920, ranging to include foods, drugs, and tobacco. For example, in American Health Prods. Co. v. Hayes, 574 F. Supp. 1498, 1505 (S.D.N.Y. 1983), the court read the term “intended” to refer to specific marketing representations.  The PhRMA letter cites several other cases, and offers a compelling argument for a circumscribed interpretation of intended use – one based on reality rather than cynicism and innuendo.  Even aside from the FDA regulatory issue, we wonder whether PhRMA’s argument might support our side in discovery disputes, or might assist us in drafting jury instructions where plaintiffs managed to smuggle allegations of off-label promotion into the case.

2.  Overly restrictive regulation of truthful, non-misleading communications to health care practitioners about unapproved uses violates the First and Fifth Amendments.

Over the last decade-plus, courts have been constantly reminding all of us, including the FDA, that the First Amendment protects commercial speech, and that truthful, non-misleading communications about off-label uses are included in such protection.  The hits just keep on coming.  Not to put too fine a point on it, the FDA’s position on off-label communications has been thoroughly undermined by recent cases.  The FDA’s exercise in wish-fulfillment simply cannot coexist with the SCOTUS opinion in Sorrell, which applied heightened scrutiny in striking down a law that restricted pharmaceutical manufacturer communications with healthcare professionals. The FDA’s “totality of the evidence” standard, besides being vague and overbroad, is certainly not the least restrictive means to protect the integrity of its drug approval process.  The Second Circuit’s Caronia decision directly refutes the FDA’s policing of truthful, non-misleading communications about off-label uses.  Apparently, all that the FDA can do in the face of Caronia is wish that it would go away.  The SDNY decision in Amarin is similarly fatal to the FDA’s position.  The PhRMA letter rips into the FDA’s efforts to prop up the proposed rule, laying waste to dicta and distinguishing away the few cases cited by the FDA.  If this debate was a little league game, it would be called on the basis of the slaughter rule.  But our concern is whether the FDA will dispassionately listen to the arguments and pay attention to the law.  In truth, we are not certain that the FDA will approach this issue with even the fairness we expect to get in a little league game.