There are two means of gaining insight into the agency’s thinking about regulatory issues related to promotional communications by pharmaceutical companies; one is through the issuance of guidance documents, the other is through enforcement.
But when it comes to enforcement things have changed greatly over the years. In 1998, there were 156 letters issued in a single year. By 2002, the number had dropped to 28, reviving somewhat by the end of that decade when it reached 52 in 2010. And since 2014 the Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP) has broken double digits only 3 times, producing only 6 letters in both 2020 an 2021. So far this year, we are at 4, which is a pretty good clip these days.
While it is difficult to discern trends with such a small number, an examination of recent warning and untitled letters reveals some possible shifts in priorities and emphasis that may be worth noting. That is particularly true since we have a new FDA Commissioner, a new head of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), and a new head of OPDP.
The 4 letters issued this calendar year:
- Involved 3 Untitled Letters and 1 Warning Letter – a profile not out of proportion given that about 33 percent of letters issued since 2004 have been Warning Letters. One of the letters came to attention of FDA reviewers through the Bad Ad Program.
- These 4 letters related to 5 different communications vehicles, 4 of which involved digital forms of communications – 2 were videos, 1 was a web page and 1 was an Instagram posting, one of the rare letters involving a social media platform. If you would look back to 2008, when digital and social media were in ascendancy by pharmaceutical companies, and compared enforcement involving traditional means of communications to those on digital platforms, letters from OPDP more commonly involve traditional means of communications (brochures, DTC print ads, etc) over digital (web pages, social media). While these most recent letters represent a small sampling, the fact that digital is over-indexed here potentially signals a heightened scrutiny involving digital platforms.
- It should also be noted that one of the videos involved an oral statement made by the CEO of a company which was posted to a third-party site. The characterization of investigative data resulted in a violation related to promotion of an unapproved compound. This perhaps emphasizes the role of media/message training prior to public-facing statement (at all stages of development).
- The single letter involving a traditional communications platform was a printed information sheet directed to physicians.
- Violations this year so far were 9 and included risk presentation deficits (3 letters) Superiority Claims and Unsubstantiated Claims (2 each) and Promotion of an Unapproved Drug (1).
- Some of the triggers included
- The use of studies in relation to a claim where the studies were unrelated and conducted in different patients for different lengths of time and were limited in design and analytic strategy;
- Risk information that was presented in small bring, out of balance to the claims presentation as well as another risk presentation that offered risk in a fast-scrolling video that was out of sync with the benefits information;
- A claim related to efficacy that did not more narrowly define the intended population as reflected in the label
When you view enforcement activity through a broader lens to get more examples to analyze, a few things stand out. Most notably, while promotion of an unapproved drug is a relatively rare violation, comprising only 2 percent of all the letters issued since 2004, it is 13 percent of all letters issued since 2016. Correspondingly, the instances of promotion of an unapproved use has diminished and was last named as a violation in 2019.
Finally, one characteristic of the regulatory action letters issued by FDA’s OPDP over the past several years is that they have principally involved smaller, lesser-known companies. It was very rare to see a company in the top 25 companies cited for violations. But this year and last year we saw Lilly receive two letters, Bausch receive one, and Amgen receive one. It may be an anomaly or it may signal a shift. For any trends to become apparent, there will need to be more enforcement actions. And for that, we must wait.