A number of regulatory and enforcement items have been up for grabs at the FDA over the past year, but few carry the weight of the agency’s review of the intended use rule. The FDA announced recently that it is suspending the implementation date for the rule, and is separating the tobacco-related portions of the rule from those governing drugs and devices. It’s a welcome step and one that is long overdue, but it is not clear yet where the agency will land on this matter.
Dexcom Warning Letter Pulled
To recap, this problem dates back to at least 2011, when Par Pharmaceutical Inc. sued the agency over the latter’s attempts to suppress Par’s on-label discussion of the company’s appetite stimulant, Megace ES, in a setting in which the drug was likely to be used off-label. Par agreed to pay a $45 million fine two years later, and the five-year corporate integrity agreement is finally set to expire later this year.
Glucose monitor maker Dexcom subsequently received an FDA warning letter alleging the device maker was aware that its devices had been sold for uses that fell outside the labeled indication, but the agency has since deleted that document from the warning letter database. The agency took an explicit approach to the issue in a Federal Register announcement in September 2015, a peculiar attempt to devise a rule that would cover tobacco products along with drugs, devices and biologics. The FDA said its intent was to clarify some of the related issues, but the 10-page draft included the curious observation that a lack of clarity might lead consumers to use tobacco products “in place of FDA-approved medical products.”
The final rule appeared in early 2017 and retained the plus-tobacco features of the proposed rule, but the document grew to 25 pages and included a more or less lengthy discussion of the Central Hudson test and other issues that came up in comments to the docket. However, the agency then delayed implementation of the final rule to March 21, 2017, and then to March 19, 2018, and FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in the agency’s Jan. 12 statement that the final rule will be suspended yet again “until further notice.”
A Procession of Concessions Fails
The 2015 proposed rule rattled observers by stating that the agency’s determination of a product’s intended use “is not bound by” explicit claims made by the manufacturer, but can instead be inferred by “objective evidence,” including the circumstances “surrounding the distribution of the product or the context in which it is sold.” The FDA tried to assuage industry’s concerns by vowing that it would not act on distribution of a product “based solely on a firm’s knowledge” of off-label use, but this concession did little to mollify industry.
The agency took a somewhat different approach in the final rule, stating that “a totality of the evidence” would be employed to determine an intent to knowingly distribute a drug or device for off-label uses. However, the Advanced Medical Technology Association argued that an approach based on the totality of the evidence is “more outcome determinative than prescriptive,” and thus manufacturers would have little choice but to “curb important product-related communications.”
The intended use rule does not entirely capture the regulated speech problem, but it is a significant hazard, particularly since whistleblowers and the Department of Justice can readily avail themselves of fodder for prosecution. It is pertinent to note that the Par Pharma case involved multiple relators, who had netted more than $4 million when all was said and done.
States Moving Ahead
There are several questions looming for the FDA, but whether the agency is in a position to stand pat is not one of those questions. The State of Arizona passed a law last year that takes up the off-label communication issue, and there are indications that other states may soon follow suit. Gottlieb has already noted that the FDA must come to grips with recent jurisprudence on the off-label issue, and the agency can scarcely afford to be swamped by a pixelated map of state policymaking where commercial speech is concerned.
The easy answer to all this is that Gottlieb will scuttle the totality-of-evidence standard, but little beyond that is especially obvious. The FDA said it will take comment through Feb. 5 on this latest iteration of the intended use scrum, so there is still time to weigh in. Given that the docket for this issue already features nearly 2,000 comments, it’s clear that significant change is in the works.