[Update: the American Medical Association recently posted an article about how “off-label” marketing is so pervasive that many doctors don’t even know what the approved purposes of the prescription drugs and medical devices are, exposing them to malpractice liability.]
The pharmaceutical defense lawyers at Drug & Device Law, one of my favorite blogs to throw rocks at (we went Jersey Shore over the Wellbutrin litigation a year ago), are at it again, this time attacking a legal theory they refer to as ‘FDA regulatory informed consent.’ Although drug companies aren’t allowed to market drugs for any purpose other than those purposes approved by the Food and Drug Administration (it’s called “off-label marketing” and it’s blatantly illegal), the FDA permits individual doctors to prescribe FDA-approved drugs for any purpose, creating a disconnect between FDA approval and actual medical practice. The FDA doesn’t do anything to regulate what doctors prescribe; the closest it comes to informed consent are its regulations for clinical trials.
Under the theory of FDA regulatory informed consent, physicians should be required to tell patients if the physician is prescribing a medication for a use not approved by the FDA. Jim Beck at Drug & Device Law thinks it’s a bad idea, and wrote his post in response to a new law review article, “The Case For Legal Regulation Of Physicians’ Off-Label Prescribing,” 86 Notre Dame L. Rev. 649 (2011)(online copy here), by Philip M. Rosoff, a professor at Duke Medical School, and Doriane Lambelet Coleman, a professor at Duke Law School. As Beck notes, most courts don’t accept the explicit version of this — i.e., the requirement that a doctor specifically say the drug or medical device isn’t FDA-approved — but, as Beck doesn’t note, some courts get awfully close. See, e.g., DeNeui v. Wellman, No. 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114853, at *11–14 (D.S.D. Dec. 9, 2009)(“a jury must determine whether a reasonable person would attach significance to the off-label use of [the medical device] before deciding whether to undergo the surgery in this case”); In re Diet Drug Litigation, 384 N.J. Super. 525, 895 A.2d 480 (Law Div. 2005)(distinguishing Blazoski v. Cook, holding “While obesity is a serious condition, phen-fen is hardly its only cure. While phen-fen may have provided real benefits for those who took it, these patients were entitled to know of its risks. And it is certainly foreseeable that, if advised of the risks, they might well have chosen alternatives.”).
I’m unsurprisingly more on Rosoff and Coleman’s side. I’ll explain.
First, a little bit of background on the subject. As I’ve discussed before, intense lobbying by drug companies — including infiltration of the supposedly neutral legal research groups like the American Law Institute, which publishes the various Restatements — has whittled away at most of the potential claims against defective drug manufacturers. The law’s so hostile to patients that even doctors think it’s too protective of drug companies. (At the same time, those same companies have lobbied for absurd laws like the Prescription Drug User Fee Act that penalize the FDA if it doesn’t approve drugs quickly enough; unsurprising, that has made drugs less safe and more likely to be withdrawn.)
If you try to sue a drug company for inadequately testing or improperly designing a drug, the drug company will cite FDA approval and shout “pre-emption,” arguing that the FDA already signed off on the drug’s safety and efficacy and that the courts aren’t allowed to second-guess that — even if neither the FDA nor Congress said they meant to foreclose tort lawsuits. Defense lawyers call that dubious argument “implied pre-emption.”
Courts will too often buy those arguments; consider the lengths to which Judge Posner jumped to deny a toxic epidermal necrolysis / Stevens-Johnson syndrome victim a $3.5 million jury award. I’m not sure why he bothered with that long and winding factual argument, leaping from assumption to assumption and begging his own questions; he could have just said, “I’d prefer they lose” and be done with it.
In short: under a variety of names (“implied preemption,” “learned intermediary,” “unavoidably unsafe product,” etc) the drug manufacturers routinely claim that FDA approval is the be-all, end-all of drug safety, and so no injured patient should ever be allowed to sue the manufacturer of an FDA-approved drug. It’s thus more than a little hypocritical for them or their lawyers to now claim that FDA approval is irrelevant to patients. It’s the sole reason they believe they’re entitled to special legal immunities not granted to other manufacturers.
Although every defective drug lawsuit these days alleges a variety of claims like strict liability, negligence, breach of warranty, and violations of consumer protection laws, in the end most of the prescription drug lawsuits tend to boil down to one type of claim: the “failure to warn” of a certain side-effect or problem with the drug. The Supreme Court held in Wyeth v. Levine that failure to warn cases could go forward, so patients’ lawyers have held on to that will all their might. All the big prescription drug cases these days — Accutane, Actos, Chantix, Darvon-Darvocet, Depakote, Fosamax, Plavix, Topamax, Yaz — are primarily failure to warn cases. The Accutane plaintiffs allege that Roche failed to warn about side effects like inflammatory bowel disease and birth defects. The Actos plaintiffs allege that Takeda failed to warn about an increased risk of bladder cancer. The Chantix plaintiffs allege that Pfizer failed to warn about the risk of depression and suicidal thoughts. Et cetera.
Lurking under the surface of many of these cases is the scourge of off-label marketing. You wouldn’t know it from Beck’s critique, but doctors and medical researchers have long fretted about off-label prescription. One study in 2006 found over 150 million off-label mentions by physicians each year — totalling over one-fifth of overall prescriptions — and found that three-quarters of those off label prescriptions had “little or no scientific support.”
Worse, many patients don’t know that doctors are allowed to prescribe drugs for unapproved and unsupported uses: “A 2006 poll suggests that much of the U.S. public is confused and ambivalent about off-label prescribing, with about half the respondents believing that physicians are permitted to prescribe drugs only for on-label indications and about half believing that physicians should be prohibited from prescribing drugs for off-label indications.” (Source).