Thursday, June 21, 2007

Preserving the Right to Advertise—No Matter How Dumb it May Be

James Madison's Legacy?

Score another one for the lobbyists at Big Pharma and their allies on Madison Avenue: the House is poised to join the Senate in passing legislation that will put new restrictions on direct-to-consumer advertising—but without putting any moratorium on the right to advertise new products.

The House followed the Senate in bowing to concerns that giving FDA the explicit authority to prohibit DTC ads for new products raises significant Constitutional issues. So, like the Senate, the House bill will now move forward with language allowing FDA to preclear ads, to require disclaimers to prevent false or misleading promotions, and--perhaps most significantly—to levy fines for ads it deems violative.

But the moratorium idea—initially supported by heavyweights like Senator Ted Kennedy and Representative Henry Waxman—is officially dead.

Am I the only one who doesn’t see what the fuss is about?

Don’t get me wrong. We here at the IN VIVO Blog are HUGE fans of the First Amendment.

I just think this ship has already sailed. FDA may not be getting the authority to prohibit DTC for new products, but does anyone in industry seriously expect to be running massive TV campaigns for new drugs again any time soon? Why would they want to?

The Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America has already conceded the principle behind the moratorium proposals. The association’s voluntary DTC code states that, “in order to foster responsible communication between patients and health care professionals, companies should spend an appropriate amount of time to educate health professionals about a new medicine or a new therapeutic indication before commencing the first DTC advertising campaign.”

The PhRMA code does not specify a minimum waiting period. A one-size-fits-all policy would keep patients from learning important medical information for products that can be safely advertised, PhRMA says. (Oh, and you will be glad to hear the code is working just great. At least PhRMA says it is.)

At first glance, it is easy to understand why Big Pharma would still resist legislative change. After all, a three-year moratorium (as proposed initially in the House bill) enacted by Congress is a lot stricter than the voluntary code adopted by PhRMA.

Except that there really isn’t a difference. The three-year moratorium is the maximum that FDA could require. The minimum would be no waiting period at all for new drugs where FDA saw no issues with immediate DTC.

Plenty of people worry—with good reason—that FDA would err on the side of caution and limit DTC routinely, and presumably put the maximum limit on as often as possible. Sponsors, in effect, would have the burden of proving to FDA that ads would do more good than harm.

The thing is, that sounds to me like exactly the situation industry is in today. FDA may not have the explicit authority to prohibit DTC for new drugs, but they have asked for and received “voluntary” commitments by manufacturers not to advertise as a condition for approval. Sponsors could just to ignore those commitments and FDA would probably be powerless to stop them—but anyone who does that better be ready for the backlash.

And it doesn't take a broken commitment to trigger a backlash.

When an FDA advisory committee recently met to discuss the safety of erythropoiesis stimulating agents in treating cancer patients, there was palpable anger on the committee about Johnson & Johnson’s advertising of Procrit. Committee members felt that J&J's commericials implied a quality of life benefit not found in product labeling. There is no way to prove it, but my hunch is the committee would not have been as tough in its recommendations to restrict ESA labeling if they weren’t so concerned about J&J’s ads.

Then there are the broader implications of the FDA legislation itself. The DTC moratorium may be gone, but the new law will still give FDA a much stronger hand to put restrictions on the roll-out of new products. The era of the billion-dollar blockbuster launch may not be over, but those products are already far rarer than they were, and the new law will make them rarer still.

Far more common will be slow builds, where products spend a year or two on the market in limited use. Only when FDA and the sponsor agree the safety profile allows for it will products break out into broad patient populations.

So why would anyone want to run big TV campaigns for new drugs right after they reach the market anyway?

One way or the other, sponsors need to be prepared to prove that their ads do more good than harm. FDA may not have the authority to demand proof, but the agency—or frustrated members of Congress—can still put advertisers in the hot seat any time they want.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good analysis. Close observers of the Senate and House debate on this bill will tell you that the media lobbying on the DTC ban was much more important than any ban by pharma companies. For media, this fight was about the First Amendment and the bottom line. Pharma companies, as you note, had already relented. But, for media owners, if Congress can ban drug ads, why not ads for all other products and services. Beyone that, one of the most interesting of the comments came from Congresswoman Anna Eshoo who said,in essence, these drug ads are as bad as political ads so they should be banned. But, she didn't suggest that political ads should also be banned. Like many, Congresswoman Eshoo apparantly thinks the First Amendment should apply to what she says, but is not so sure about its application to what others say.