Free Speech and Off-Label Drug Use

When pharmaceutical representatives talk to physicians and others about their products, they are only allowed to talk about indications (reasons) to use the product as approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Doctors are free to prescribe for other reasons, and often do so for good reasons.  Drug companies may pay dearly if they break the rules. Pfizer paid 2.3 billion due to promoting Bextra for off-label use, for example.

This rule was put into effect decades ago to protect consumers. Since then there have been a number of examples of products promoted for things that in retrospect didn’t work as advertized. If you’re old enough, you’ve probably heard the term snake oil.

According to the Wall Street Journal there are now several court cases that may change these rules. In June the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Vermont law and cited the First Amendment in a case involving pharmacies sharing data with pharmaceutical companies to help them market their drugs to doctors. That has opened the door for the companies to now claim the same free speech rights to market drugs off-label.

If the companies gain this ability, it would be bad for patients. Basically they could say whatever they want. Besides talking about off label use where there is legitimate reasons to use their product, they could claim anything they wanted to say. “Our drug is more effective than our competitor,” even if it’s not. “Our drug is perfectly safe,” even if it’s not. “Our drug will make you lose weight, increase your IQ, improve your looks, and make you live 10 years longer, “even if it won’t, but if you believe it, let me tell you about a bridge for sale.

I learn about a lot of new drugs because the sales reps come to my office to tell me about their product. As it is, I listen to them skeptically and off challenge what they say. Although they are restricted on what they can say, they can choose what information to emphasize and how to make their product look good without actually lying. If they can promote off label, I won’t know what to believe. Then my strategy might be to stop seeing reps.

About Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP

I'm an internal medicine physician and have avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when I wrote my first medically oriented computer programs. So yes, that means I'm at least 35-years-old!
This entry was posted in Government, Pharmaceuticals and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Free Speech and Off-Label Drug Use

  1. Mike Baker says:

    Very True, well said

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