Pharma Goes to Court

© Satori |

© Satori |

Okay, stay with me on this one. I want to talk about some jousting going on in the court system between Pharma and regulatory agencies, like the FDA. Amarin Corporation is suing the FDA, saying that the FDA violated its first amendment rights to free speech. The company argued that it has “a constitutional right to share certain information about its products with doctors.” Lawyers for the company believed this was the first time a manufacturer has sued the agency before the FDA ruled against them. The future “blockbuster” at the center of this fight is an omega-3 fatty acid product derived from fish called Vascepa. That’s right prescription strength fish oil.

As a matter of fact, according to Katie Thomas of The New York Times, Vascepa is the only existing product for Amarin. The FDA approved Vascepa for patients with extremely high levels of triglycerides, which are linked to heart disease. When the company sought to expand the drug’s approved reach to individuals with severe levels of triglycerides, the FDA denied its request. Lawyers for the company claim the company is not trying to market Vascepa to a wider population of patients than it was approved for, which is illegal. Amarin merely wants to make statements about its product that manufacturers of fish-oil supplements make—namely that there is “supportive but not conclusive research” that shows fish oil products like Vascepa may reduce the risk of coronary hear disease.

A lawyer for Amarin pointed out where doctors are already prescribing Vascepa off-label, which is legal for doctors to do once the FDA approves a drug for any purpose. “Those doctors who are already prescribing off-label need more information, not less, about what their treatment options are.” John Sullivan said on Drug and Device Law, that the content of Amarin’s supporting brief was convincing. In addition to the “truthful, non-misleading statements it wants to provide to healthcare workers, it wants to provide the results of its ANCHOR clinical trial and other peer-reviewed articles on the connection between the active ingredient in Vascepa and coronary risk.

But is all this legal dancing around just about the right of a relatively small biopharmaceutical company to make the same claims about its prescription drug that dietary supplement companies can make about their fish oil products?

Toni Clarke, writing for Reuters, noted where drug companies have been increasing their efforts to pressure the FDA to relax its guidelines since a 2012 decision  (2-1) from the Second Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of a sales representative for Orphan Medical, who was caught talking to physicians about off-label uses for the narcolepsy drug, Xyrem. The court said truthful and non-misleading off-label “speech” was protected by the First Amendment. “Pharmaceutical companies are citing the Caronia and similar rulings to pressure the FDA to let them talk more freely about off-label use.”

A coalition of pharmaceutical companies known as the Medical Information Working Group has petitioned the FDA to “’adequately justify and appropriately tailor its regulatory regime in light of Caronia and similar rulings.” This coalition includes Pfizer, Sanofi, Novartis AG, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lily and Co., GlaxoSmithKline, Purdue Pharma, and Bayer Healthcare Pharaceuticals. What’s at stake is the right of manufacturers to attempt to persuade physicians to use their products for unapproved uses. This would be a potentially serious weakening of the FDA’s regulatory authority. Oh, and it could mean billions of dollars in potential sales for Pharma.

The FDA sent a letter to Amarin, essentially saying that it did not have concerns with most of the information Amarin proposed to communicate to doctors. The FDA pointed to existing guidance documents that indicated Amarin could distribute the results of its ANCHOR clinical trial results through peer-reviewed articles. Further, it said Amarin could communicate summaries of those trail results, but not in marketing materials or through sales reps.

Then on June 23, 2015, the FDA filed its brief in response to Amarin’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction. The brief called the lawsuit a frontal assault on the framework for new drug approval, rather than a narrower as-applied constitutional challenge. Lisa Baird, writing for ReedSmith, further noted where the FDA felt that if successful, the Amarin litigation “has the potential to establish precedent that would return the country to the pre-1962 era when companies were not required to prove that their drugs were safe and effective for each of their intended uses.”

At the heart of the matter is the distinction made by the FDA between drugs and dietary supplements. The FDA brief noted that Amarin ignored “the critical reality that drugs present markedly different considerations from dietary supplements.” After citing several legal rulings in support of this claim, the FDA said that Amarin wanted to market Vascepa as a drug intended to treat patients who are already being treated with statins, but continue to be at risk for cardiovascular disease. “Yet, FDA has found on multiple occasions that the heart disease claim did not meet the statutory standard of significant scientific agreement as the claim is based on ‘less persuasive studies.’” The potential harm posed by drugs is presumably much greater than that posed by dietary supplements.

These considerations amply justify a more cautious approach to drug approval and promotion, and the applicable statutory scheme recognizes this necessity. Unlike drugs, there is no statutory requirement of premarket approval for dietary supplements to be distributed. See 21 U.S.C. § 301 et seq. In addition, as a result of Pearson, claims about dietary supplements are held to a much lower standard (credible evidence) than the robust evidentiary requirement for drugs (substantial evidence) or the intermediate standard that FDA applies to reprints. See 21 U.S.C. § 355(d) & (e); Woodcock Decl. ¶¶ 31-32. Unlike for drug claims, qualified health claims “can be made [for dietary supplements and foods] under some circumstances even when the weight of the scientific evidence is against the claim, provided there is some credible evidence supporting it.” Woodcock D ecl. ¶ 33. Indeed, the June 5 Letter advised Amarin that if it “were to repackage and re-label [its] product as a dietary supplement” and ensure that other relevant conditions were met, “FDA would not object to your inclusion on that dietary supplement of the” heart disease claim. June 5 Letter at 10. Plaintiffs thus conflate two separate regulatory regimes and seek to make Amarin subject only to the aspects of each regime that it finds convenient—an approach that is unsupported by law and contrary to logic and sound public health policy.

This is an important and potentially a serious game changer in FDA attempts to protect the public from the growing evidence of the harmful marketing tactics of Pharma. This jousting between Amarin and the FDA is taking place in the context of the recent approval of “The 21st Century Cures Act,” which was unanimously approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on May 21, 2015. Toni Clarke reported that language in the bill adds pressure on the FDA to relax its guidelines.

Allen Frances, in his book Saving Normal, published a chart that he called the drug company “hall of shame.” Prepared by Melissa Raven, PhD, it listed the fines and settlements by Pharma companies for off-label promotion, marketing and fraudulent misbranding of 20 well know pharmaceuticals. Most of the companies noted above who are part of the Medical information Working Group were listed there. Here are the companies and their total fines and settlements between 2004 and 2012 recorded in the table in Saving Normal. The fines and settlements combine both civil and criminal cases. Johnson & Johnson ($1.44 billion); GlaxoSmithKline ($3 billion); Abbott ($1.5 billion); Novartis ($422.5 million); Forrest ($313 million); AstraZeneca ($520 million); Pfizer ($2.3 billion); Eli Lily ($1.415 billion); Bristol-Myers Squibb ($515 million); Purdue (almost $635 million). I think it’s clear why Pharma is going after the FDA. The sum total in fines and settlements from the chart was $12.06 billion between 2004 and 2012.

The FDA announced that it plans to hold a public meeting this summer to address drug company concerns with restrictions on what they can say about off-label use of drugs. But as of the beginning of July, I could find no indication of a set date and time for the public meeting. Perhaps the FDA decided to delay scheduling the meeting until there was an indication what would happen with the 21st Century Cures Act. They may also want to see further reaction to its June 23, 2015 brief filed in response to Amarin’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction.

If I wanted to build case law precedents to justify my constitutional right to share certain information about my pharmaceutical products with doctors, I think I’d first try to have the courts rule in favor of a product like pharmaceutical grade fish oil. It’s already sold as a dietary supplement and there are hardly any known side effects. If successful, I’d build on it and the Caronia case by filing additional litigation in an attempt to cut off the FDA regulations against off-label promotion and marketing of pharmaceuticals at the knees.

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