Archive for the ‘drug marketing’ Category
Tuesday, May 29th, 2012
Posted May 29th, 2012
The Affordable Care Act created some desperately needed means to start controlling ever-rising health care costs. Many — like preventive care or delivery reforms — will take some time to realize savings. In contrast, new anti-fraud efforts look to be paying off right away, in amounts much bigger than expected.
The health reform law provided $350 million over ten years to increase anti-fraud investigation and enforcement resources for the Department of Justice (DOJ) and State Attorneys-General. The goal? Saving $6.4 billion over the next decade. Given that some estimate that fraud and waste cost as much as $60 billion a year, or $600 billion over a decade, saving one percent of that amount seems a pretty modest impact.
But wait! New estimates project that current or pending settlements of drug fraud litigation by the DOJ and the Attorneys-General will top $8 billion in FY2012 alone, according to the group Taxpayers Against Fraud. (See list below.) This is not the culmination of hundreds of lawsuits; it’s just the eight biggest. So it looks like this anti-fraud effort under the ACA will meet and then surpass its ten-year goal in less than two years!
To be fair, most of these eight drug fraud investigations were undoubtedly underway before the increased funding for anti-fraud efforts reached the DOJ and State Attorneys-General offices. But there is little doubt that providing these over-worked regulators with increased resources was a big help in increasing enforcement. DOJ probably has fewer lawyers working on all their pending drug fraud cases than some of the biggest drugmakers hire to defend a single lawsuit. But despite these disparities, these results show that very modest government investment in fighting fraud, coupled with hard work by government lawyers and whistleblowers, can pay off big.
For example, earlier this week drugmaker Abbott Labs in Chicago settled a civil and criminal investigation of their illegal promotion of the anti-convulsant drug Depakote as an unapproved treatment of dementia in seniors, and of various conditions in children. Abbott pleaded guilty to promoting these unapproved, or ‘off-label’ uses of Depakote, and agreed to pay $1.6 billion – one of the biggest settlements for the illegal promotion of a single drug.
There could be as many as a couple hundred pending whistle-blower lawsuits that are filed under seal and being investigated now by the federal or state regulators. These pending lawsuits may add up to billions of dollars of additional fines and settlements.
Some critics have warned that even billion-dollar fines are an inadequate deterrent when a drug company can make far in profits on illegally promoted sales of a drug.
For instance, the $1.4 billion record-breaking settlement with Eli Lilly in 2009 for illegal promotion of their antipsychotic drug Zeprexa was less than 5 percent of Lilly’s gross sales. Eight months later, DOJ shattered this record with an even bigger $2.3 billion settlement, which amounted to 14 percent of Pfizer’s gross sales of eight illegally marketed drugs (see here).
Similarly, this month’s $1.6 billion Depakote settlement is nearly 12 percent of the drug’s $13.8 billion in gross sales revenue from 1998 to 2008. Furthermore, DOJ is pioneering two mechanisms to deter future illegal conduct by Abbott, along with this hefty fine.
First, the Depakote settlement places Abbott on probation and imposes a corporate compliance and monitoring program, for five years. If Abbott violates the compliance agreement or significantly violates the law, the government can exclude Abbott, and all their drug products, from federal health care programs. That would cost Abbott billions in lost sales on numerous drugs.
The settlement also aims to hold Abbott’s corporate leadership personally accountable. Abbott’s CEO must personally certify compliance and the board of directors must review and report on compliance each year. If the CEO or the board is lax in these duties, they could be excluded from their positions at Abbott. And if CEO or board intentionally lie to the government to cover up any misconduct, they could face personal criminal liability under the federal False Statements Statute. (Find the plea agreement and related documents here.)
Sadly, Abbott’s illegal promotion of ineffective and dangerous uses of Depakote has both harmed and put at risk what is arguably the most vulnerable patient population – seniors suffering from dementia, who live away from their families in nursing homes. Undoubtedly millions of seniors were, and likely continue to be given Depakote inappropriately as a result of Abbott’s illegal promotional campaign.
Check back soon for more on (1) actions that Medicare and Medicaid can take to address the continuing effects on patients of illegal promotions of off-label use of drugs and (2) how the Arkansas AG fought prescription drug fraud, winning huge fines to plug the state’s Medicaid budget deficit.
Director, Prescription Access Litigation
Staff Attorney, Community Catalyst
Projected Drug Fraud Settlements in FY 2012, excerpted from the Taxpayers Against Fraud website.
||Off-label marketing of Vioxx — settled
||Series of drug frauds, said to be settled in principle.
||Off-label marketing of Depakote, settled.
||Illegal marketing of Aranesp, funds reserved.
||Illegal marketing of protonix, projected settlement amount.
|Johnson & Johnson
||Off-label marketing of Risperdal, civil settlement is expected.
||Adulteration of HIV drugs, settlement in excess of $400 million expected.
||AWP pricing fraud, settled.
A version of this blog was posted earlier on Health Policy Hub and Postscript.
Monday, July 12th, 2010
A week or so ago we blogged about comments Prescription Access Litigation and others made to the FDA in support of proposed rules on presenting risk information in broadcast drug ads.
Numerous other consumer and public health groups have commented, and overall offered resounding support for these proposed regs. The Patient, Consumer and Public Health Coalition offered their support for these regulations and stressed that “the goal of DTC ads is to persuade, not to educate, and so DTC ads emphasize the benefits but not the risks of prescription drugs.”
Consumer groups, including the National Consumers League, additionally offered support for the proposed fifth requirement of dual-modality, simultaneous audio and textual presentation. Consumers Union voiced the importance of dual-modality in their comment stating that “[p]roviding an audio warning with other things happening in the background is, no matter how hard one tries, distracting” and, “[p]roviding a text warning while talking about other things is distracting;” “Providing the same, simultaneous audio and visual warning is the single best way to make a lasting impression that will be helpful to patient-consumers.”
Some consumer groups also argued that pre-review of ads should be required. Here’s Public Citizen: “to obtain approval of DTC advertising on broadcast media, a party shall present market research demonstrating that information concerning side effects, contraindications and warnings is comprehensible to the target audience.” A pharmacists group and pharmaceutical powerhouse Eli Lilly also supported the use of focus groups to review and “pre-approve” ads and to pilot test that elements (e.g. font size, color, placement) of an ad.
In addition to these shared themes, AARP also suggested that the FDA rule should specify where in the ad the “major statement” should appear” and that the major statement should not be allowed to be placed in the middle of the ad “where it can be bookended by conveyance of benefit information and is least likely to be retained by consumers.”
The two pharmacist organizations that commented–the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists and the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy (AMCP)—supported the new proposed rules, as well as dual modality in ads and pre-dissemination review whether by the FDA or by consumer test groups.
Industry against dual modality, for delays
Industry was relatively quiet on these new proposed regulations: only the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and four pharmaceutical companies submitted comments so far. Though industry all stressed the public health benefits of DTCA and generally offer their support for the FDA’s action to further clarify the standards, a few common themes of opposition are apparent in all industry comments.
On the whole, industry seems very opposed to the proposed fifth standard of requiring dual modality. Sepracor argues that dual modality “could prove to complicate the presentation for consumers.” PhRMA seconded this argument and said that “dual modality might produce presentations that actually overemphasize risk information.”
Merck further stated that dual modality “does not improve consumer recall or understanding of important risks information.” Though Merck supported this argument with one 2005 study, it went on to mention the limitations of this study and none of the other industry commenters provided any support for their arguments against dual modality, and all of industry’s comments against dual modality ignore the numerous studies that have shown that the technique enhances clarity and recall of information (and which the FDA cited in its proposed rule).
The second overarching theme of the industry comments seems to be an attempt to delay the implementation of these rules. Sepracor, Merck and Eli Lilly all suggest that the FDA do further research and analysis on these standards before implementation. Sepracor argued that the rule should not be made effective until the results of FDA’s study on the impact of distraction can be published and commented on.
This argument reads largely as a delay tactic employed by Sepracor to postpone the inevitable implementation of this rule. Though there is no doubt that the FDA’s study may help them to further understand what elements of broadcast media can be distracting, there’s little debate that the impact of distraction on consumer understanding… is to distract, and that’s hardly a reason for FDA to delay implementing these rules when the public’s health is at stake.
In one of the more head-scratching unsupported assertions, Sepracor stated that up to 70 percent of the time slot of an ad is used to convey safety information for the drug. Anyone who’s ever viewed one of the numerous DTC ads currently on TV knows that this statistic has little foundation in reality.
–Emily Cutrell, Prescription Access Litigation
Tuesday, September 29th, 2009
Last week, the American College of Physicians (ACP), a 129,000-member group of internal medicine physicians, and second-largest doctors group in the US, called for increased FDA authority and funding to help protect consumers from the risks of newly-approved prescription drugs. Their six recommendations were:
1) increased funding for FDA staff and technological capability to keep pace with the increased workload due to the number and scientific complexity of new products submitted for pre-approval, globalization, and emerging safety challenges.
2) increased FDA authority and capacity to regulate drugs manufactured outside the US;
3) expanded FDA authority and involvement in the design of clinical trials to better evaluate safety and efficacy, through longer trials with larger, more representative target populations;
4) a ban on clinical studies of ‘bundled’ drug products that reduce access to drugs;
5) Improvements that increase reporting of adverse events by doctors and others; and
6) limits on direct-to-consumer advertising in the first 2 years a drug is on the market.
Increased FDA funding:
The ACP report notes that FDA’s “ability to approve and monitor new drugs has been compromised by chronic underfunding, limited regulatory authority, and insufficient organizational structure.” ACP recommends that FDA funding is increased, to improve their “ability to approve and monitor prescription drugs….”
Regulating drug manufacturing overseas:
The ACP should be praised for bringing attention to severe under resourcing at FDA, particularly as it affects the Agency’s ability to ensure the safety of drugs manufactured overseas. Today’s globalized pharmaceutical supply chain has rapidly outgrown FDAs capacity, and FDA is not able to inspect foreign sites with any meaningful frequency. A 2008 GAO study found it would take FDA 13 years to inspect each foreign manufacturing establishment once, while domestic sites are inspected on average every 2.7 years.
ACP points out that a provision for increased foreign inspections were included in a bill (H.R.759) introduced by Reps. Dingell, Pallone and Stupak in January this year. A similar bill (S.882) championed by the late Senator Kennedy and Senator Grassley also seeks to increase foreign site inspections by FDA. Both bills establish new industry user fees to pay for this expanded oversight, but also require annual increases in other appropriations to ensure sustainability. ACP importantly indicates that both types of financial support are needed, and mentions a number of other key provisions in the House bill, including a requirement for dedicated foreign inspection staff.
Facilitating increased physician reporting of adverse events:
The ACP also recommends FDA pursue efforts to “educate physicians on how and when to report an event that is potentially drug-related.” They also proposed streamlining the reporting systems and ensuring anonymity to “facilitate reporting by health professionals.”
DTC advertising of new drugs:
The report acknowledges that direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising can “dramatically increase [use] of a new drug and … may expose large numbers of people to a drug with undocumented safety concerns.”
The best example of this concerns was seen in the rapid use of the pain-killer Vioxx upon hitting the market. The aggressive DTC advertising and other promotional activities by manufacturer Merck lead to Vioxx’s use by over 20 million consumers, which then lead to 88,000-139,000 cardiac events, and an estimated 35,000-55,000 deaths. Adverse reactions and safety concerns arose with the drugs Zyprexa and Bextra, among many others
To address this concern, ACP recommended that FDA ‘limit’ the DTC advertising of newly approved prescription drugs, and require that labels and ads indicate that data related to the new drug’s “risks and benefits … are less extensive than those [for older] products…”
Prohibiting clinical trials of ‘bundled’ products:
In addition, ACP also makes a recommendation that would help FDA avoid placing itself in the position of helping drug manufacturers introduce ‘bundled’ or combination drug products designed to protect a drug from generic competitors.
For example, the report describes how, in 2005, the drug manufacturer “Pfizer submitted plans to the FDA to begin conducting large trials to test the cholesterol drug torcetrapib in combination with the popular and widely used statin Lipitor.” By allowing clinical trials of the ‘combination drug’ rather than just torcetrapib alone, approval of the new combination drug product would insulate Lipitor from competition. This then puts FDA, in approving the study design, in the awkward position of helping the drug manufacturer avoid anti-trust prohibitions, the report said.
This concern is similar to the claims in the PAL member lawsuit on the drug Norvir, where drug manufacturer Abbott Labs bundle their HIV protease inhibitor cocktail drug Norvir in a new bundled-product-drug Kaletra, in order to increase market share.
ACP recommends that FDA not approve clinical trials which seem to be designed to ‘bundle’ a new drug with an existing brand name drug, and thus perpetuate the patent-protected sales of the new combination product.
To read the full report, visit http://www.acponline.org/advocacy/where_we_stand/policy/fda.pdf
Wednesday, March 4th, 2009
Today, the Supreme Court rejected arguments by the prescription drug industry that having their labels approved by the Food and Drug Administration should be a shield from state law tort liability. In a rousing victory for consumers of prescription drugs, the Supreme Court rendered a decision preserving consumer rights to access the courts when injured physically or financially by prescription drugs.
In the case Wyeth v. Levine, the Court ruled 6 to 3 that the FDA’s approval of a drug label does not preempt consumer’s rights to sue the manufacturer for their failure to warn of knows risks associated with the drug.
The lawsuit was brought by Diane Levine, a musician from Vermont who while suffering from a migraine was given the anti-nausea drug Phenergan. Her physician’s assistant did so in a manner that caused the drug to contact her arteries, which caused gangrene and resulted in the loss of her arm. Ms. Levine sued and settled with her doctor. She also sued the drug’s Manufacturer, Wyeth. In its defense, Wyeth argued that the FDA’s approval of the label under federal law preempted Ms. Levine’s rights under state law, but lost. After a 5-day trial, a Vermont jury concluded that the drug maker did not adequately warn of the known risks of gangrene associated with the use of the drug, and awarded Ms. Levine $7.4 million.
After losing in appeals all the way up to Vermont’s Supreme Court, Phenergran’s manufacturer, Wyeth appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court accepted the case, and addressed the issue
whether federal law preempts Levine’s claim that Phenergan’s label did not contain an adequate warning about using the IV-push method of administration.
In today’s decision, the Court decided that there was no preemption, and found in favor of Ms. Levine.
The Court first noted that it was not impossible for the drug maker to comply with both state law and federal requirements in preparing the drug’s label. The court concluded that the drug maker could have added warnings to the label at any time to reflect the risks of gangrene that had occurred to over twenty people since the labeling was approved by FDA. Wyeth had incorrectly argued that the federal regulations prohibited their changes to the label, because they must have been based on “newly acquired information….” The Court countered that Wyeth was incorrect, and that they could have added warnings to reflect the 19 amputations that had arisen from Phenergan’s use before Ms. Levine’s case.
The Court also concluded that Wyeth suffered from a “more fundamental misunderstanding” about the duty to warn consumers of the risks of prescription drugs. The Court noted that
Wyeth suggests that the FDA, rather than the manufacturer, bears primary responsibility for drug labeling. Yet through many amendments to the FDCA and to FDA regulations, it has remained a central premise of federal drug regulation that the manufacturer bears responsibility for the content of its label at all times. It is charged both with crafting an adequate label and with ensuring that its warnings remain adequate as long as the drug is on the market.
Wyth also argued that the Ms. Levine’s lawsuit should be preempted because it interferes with “Congress’s purpose to entrust an expert agency to make drug labeling decisions that strike a balance between competing objectives.” The Court rejected this argument as being both out of line with the intent of Congress, and as based on “an overbroad view of agency’s power to pre-empt state law.”
On the first point, the Court notes that “[i]f Congress thought state-law suits posed an obstacle to its objectives, it surely would have enacted an express preemption provision at some point during the FDCA’s 70-year history” like it did with a 1976 amendment allowing “express pre-emption … for medical devices….”
The Court also spoke to the FDA’s role in the preemption debate, especially it’s position in favor preemption announced in the preamble to the 2006 regulations that redesigned the format and content requirements for prescription drugs. The Court also assessed how much weight to give an agency position that “state law is an obstacle to achieving its statutory objectives….” The Court found that in cases lacking express authority by Congress, the deference given to an agency “depends on its thoroughness, consistency, and persuasiveness.” Based on this, the Court decided that FDA’s position “does not merit deference.”
First, the Court pointed out a glaring procedural lapse by FDA in adopting the position that their regulations and approval of drug label preempts state law. In proposing the draft rule in 2000, the FDA had stated that the rule would “not contain policies that have federalism implications or that preempt State law.”
Despite this, FDA adopted a position in favor of preemption upon publishing the final rule in 2006. FDA did so “without offering States or other interested parties notice or opportunity for comment….” As a consequence, the Supreme concluded that “[t]he agency’s views on state law are inherently suspect in light of this procedural failure.”
The Court also noted that the FDA position on preemption “is at odds with … Congress’s purposes, and it reverses the FDA’s own longstanding position….” The Court summarized the history of FDA’s relationship to state law, noting that
the FDA traditionally regarded state law as a complementary form of drug regulation. The FDA has limited resources to monitor the 11,000 drugs on the market,and manufacturers have superior access to information about their drugs, especially in the postmarketing phase as new risks emerge.
The Court also stated that
State tort suits uncover unknown drug hazards and provide incentives for drug manufacturers to disclose safety risks promptly. They also serve a distinct compensatory function that may motivate injured persons to come forward with information. Failure-to-warn actions, in particular, lend force to the FDCA’s premise that manufacturers, not the FDA, bear primary responsibility for their drug labeling at all times. Thus, the FDA long maintained that state law offers an additional, and important, layer of consumer protection that complements FDA regulation.12 The agency’s 2006 preamble represents a dramatic change in position.
We recognize this decision as an important victory for consumers, and we applaud the Court for this decision.
We hope to post more details on this decision, and its potential impact on our other lawsuits, soon.
You can read the full decision at
Tuesday, November 18th, 2008
Today, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in IMS v. Ayotte, the case challenging New Hampshire’s Prescription Confidentiality Act, which prohibits the commercial use of prescriber data, including for pharmaceutical detailing. The Court unanimously upheld the law, finding that it did not violate the First Amendment. The opinion weighed in at a hefty 148 pages.
The Act sought to prohibit the practice of “datamining” for the purpose of pharmaceutical marketing: pharmacies sell doctors’ individual prescribing data (what drugs the doctors prescribed, when, and how often) to companies that aggregate such data. Those companies then sell prescribing “profiles” of individual physicians to drug companies, whose salespeople can then use that information to tailor the “pitch” that they use in marketing their drugs to those doctors. For instance, if a doctor has been prescribing a competitor’s drug, they might tailor the sales pitch to talk about why their drug is allegedly superior.
IMS Health, a company that collects and sells pharmacy data on doctors’ prescribing practices, sued the state of New Hampshire before the ink was barely dry on the law. They alleged that it violated their First Amendment rights. In April 2007, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire agreed, and struck down the law. The State of New Hampshire appealed the decision to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard the appeal in January 2008.
Sean Fiil-Flynn, who represented PAL’s parent organization Community Catalyst, as well as AARP, National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices, National Physicians Alliance, New Hampshire Medical Society, and Prescription Policy Choices in filing an amicus brief before the 1st Circuit, gave an excellent analysis of the decision and its ramifications:
The court unanimously upheld the New Hampshire law. The majority found that the act does not regulate speech, but rather regulates only the conduct of health information companies that aggregate and sell prescription records. The concurrence concluded that the Act does affect speech of pharmaceutical marketers, but the regulation is nonetheless justified by the state’s overriding interest in promoting cost containment in the pharmaceutical sector.
This is an important decision for data privacy advocates. The ramifications of giving companies a First Amendment right to sell data on all of our purchases, travel and activities would be staggering. The First Circuit ruled on the side of consumer privacy, admonishing that the First Amendment does not protect every exchange of information from traditional social and economic regulation. It refused to apply the First Amendment to the trading of prescription records for marketing purposes where “information itself has become a commodity.” The court explained that applying the First Amendment to such trade in prescription data “stretches the fabric of the First Amendment beyond any rational measure.”
The 148 pages of analysis exhaustively analyses the voluminous evidence amassed by New Hampshire demonstrating the negative effects on our health care system of allowing pharmaceutical marketers to use prescription record tracking to target their marketing efforts.
The court affirmed that states have a valid interest in regulating the use of prescription records to target marketing to doctors. The court found that the use of such information to identify doctors who prescribe lower cost drugs and target marketing campaigns at them has a demonstrable impact on pharmaceutical spending that states are not disempowered to respond to. Access to individualized prescription data also allows companies to target gifts, consultancies and other perks to their most favored physicians, in effect incorporating prescribers into the commission structure of their sales forces. These practices debase the medical profession and, the more the practices become public, break the chain of trust between doctor and patient.
- The 1st Circuit’s decision is here
- An Associated Press article on the decision is here: NH prescription privacy law upheld
- The 1st Circuit Amicus Curiae brief of Community Catalyst and others is here.
- The District Court Amicus Curiae brief of Prescription Access Litigation and others is here.
- See also what PostScript, the blog of our colleagues at The Prescription Project, had to say about the decision.
Tuesday, October 14th, 2008
A drug advertising pitchman?
Recently, the FDA requested comments on direct-to-consumer (“DTC”) advertising, and its effects upon subsets of the general population, such as the elderly, children, and racial and ethnic minority communities.
PAL and our sister organization, the Prescription Project (www.prescriptionproject.org ) weighed in on the relationship between DTC advertising and the risks and costs of prescription drugs. Our assessment overall was that
“direct-to-consumer advertising produces no proven public health benefits and likely plays a role in driving unnecessary use of pharmaceuticals. Manufacturer-sponsored television advertisements, in particular, are ill-suited to effective communication of risk-benefit information about prescription drugs. Elderly consumers, the less-educated and those with English as a second language may be at particular risk for misunderstanding the potential risks and benefits associated with advertised drugs.”
First, we noted that there is evidence that DTC ads prompt people to discuss advertised conditions and treatments with their doctors – in short, DTC ads work. Why else would the drug companies spend increasing billions each year on drug ads. But, more importantly, we point out that there is no evidence that what ‘works’ to sell drugs is of any benefit for patients. To the contrary, there is abundant evidence of the harm and cost of DTC advertising to consumers.
Populations at risk.
Drug companies tend to focus their advertising on new drugs, with the hopes of finding the next billion-dollar block-buster. When successful, ads drive a rapid increase in prescribing that can expose a large number of the public to the health risks and previously-unknown side effects associated with the new drug. (Clinical trials of new drugs that drug companies run as part of getting FDA approval usually involve only a few thousand participants for a short time, usually less than two years. Therefore side effects that are rare, or that emerge only after patients have used a drug for a longer period of time, may only become obvious once the drug is on the market for a while and being taken by millions of people.)
Vioxx: The Poster Child for Drug Usage Driven by Advertisements
Developed as a daily-use pain reliever, Vioxx was no more effective than ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve). Its only established improvement over these older, time-tested (and much cheaper!) medicines was a decreased risk of stomach bleeding and ulcers. However, no more than 2-4% of patients are at risk for developing these stomach problems. As a result of the substantial DTC advertising and other aggressive promotion, Vioxx use soared from 1999 until its recall on September 30, 2004. Our comment notes that the rapid explosion of Vioxx use, made possible in part by DTC advertising, was
“responsible for an estimated 88,000 to 140,000 cases of serious coronary heart disease and an estimated 38,000 to 61,000 deaths in the USA.”
Even without these risks, DTC advertising drives up health care costs. DTC advertising promotes medically unnecessary prescribing that offers “little or no meaningful clinical benefit for many patients….” This is true of cholesterol lowering agents, allergy medications, antidepressants, and many other types of heavily advertised drugs.
For instance, we noted one study in which actors went to doctors offices posing as patients, and specifically asked for Paxil after supposedly seeing an ad. Doctors wrote prescriptions for Paxil in very high percentages even when the purported condition was one for which there was little evidence (minor depression), or even no evidence (social adjustment disorder) that Paxil was an effective treatment. This illustrates how DTC advertising helps fuel medically inappropriate use.
Debunking drug industry propaganda that DTC advertising promotes public health
In our comments, we took the opportunity to review the many other submissions to the FDA by drug companies which claimed that DTC advertising promotes public health. We noted that most of their purported ‘proof’ were ‘opinion surveys’ of how doctors or patients felt ads helped lead to needed diagnoses or treatment. Only one cited study looked at how often ads lead a patient to seek diagnosis. But we noted that there were no studies proving that DTC ads actually lead to objectively measured, medically necessary and appropriate care.
DTC advertising is not balanced
Under federal regulations, promotional materials for prescription drugs must achieve a ‘fair balance’ between showing the benefits of a drug, and its risks. Also, promotional materials must provide adequate warning of the possible risks or adverse side effects.
The heart of the problem with direct to consumer advertising is that it does not achieve this ‘fair balance.’ DTC ads have been shown to focus more on the benefits, and to downplay or undermine the viewer’s understanding of risks. As a result, one study found that patients can accurately describe the benefits of drugs 80% of the time, but can only understand the risks 20% of the time. This is because drug ads spend more time describing a drug’s benefits, using easier language, with frequent repetition. In contrast, drug risks are often presented more quickly, in more difficult language, with other audio and visual distractions.
We recommend that FDA closely examine whether DTC ads can or do achieve a ‘fair balance’ between benefits and risks, given the ads representation of, and the public’s perceptions of, these risks. In addition,
“it must be remembered that DTC advertising drives attention to conditions chosen for their return on investment, not their importance in improving the public health.”
PAL’s and Prescription Project’s comments are here.
Friday, August 15th, 2008
The Prescription Access Litigation blog’s resident Advice Columnist, Ask Pharmie, has been on hiatus for a while — but now he’s back! Ask Pharmie answers readers’ questions about the pharmaceutical industry, drug marketing, drug pricing, and the like. Send him your questions! (Keep in mind, he does not answer medical or treatment questions, or render medical advice.)
So, reaching into Ask Pharmie’s mailbag, here’s our latest question:
Question: I recently switched from a brand name drug to a generic version to save money. Although the generic works just as well, the pill is a different color and shape from the brand-name. This is confusing. Why don’t the generic pills look the same as the brand name pills?
Good question! After all, generic drugs are the same medicine as the brand-name – they have the same active ingredient, and the same effectiveness. So it stands to reason that the pill would look the same, right? Not necessarily.
When a brand-name drug first comes on the market, the manufacturer has a patent on the drug that prevents any other companies from making or selling that drug. However, when the patent expires or gets invalidated, generic drug companies can apply for FDA approval to sell identical generic versions of the drug.
Generic drugs are required to have the same active ingredient and to work the same as the brand name. But this does not also mean that generic drug companies can copy the appearance of brand name drugs. If the appearance, shape, name and/or color of the drug is trademarked, it cannot be copied. Trademarks are words, names and symbols used to identify goods from a particular manufacturer. Unlike patents, which last a maximum of 20 years, trademarks never expire. While many brand name drug companies have traditionally only trademarked the names of their drugs, there is a trend towards trademarking the appearance of the drug as well.
For example, Pfizer has trademarked both the name Viagra and the well-known blue diamond shape of the Viagra pill. AstraZeneca has trademarked not just the name Nexium, but also the phrase “Purple Pill” and the characteristic purple-with-yellow-stripes appearance of Nexium.
So why have drug companies started to trademark the appearance of their drugs? In the past several years, brand name drug companies have started to make the appearance of their pills part of their marketing campaigns. By making consumers associate a particular appearance of a pill with the medicine contained in the pill, the drug company builds what’s called a “brand identity.” This helps convince the consumer that the product is superior and builds what’s called “brand loyalty.”
Drug companies use this strategy to stand out from their competitors. They also use it to try to convince patients to keep paying for the more expensive brand-name version of the medicine when a generic version becomes available. They hope that the patient will equate the look of the pill with its effectiveness. A generic pill can look “drab” in comparison, to, say a colorful Nexium pill, with its bright purple and its yellow stripes. It is a testament to how effective drug company marketing has become that consumers even notice the color of their pills!
Unfortunately, this serves to confuse patients. For patients that take many medications, the shape and color of the pill can help them remember what it is and what it’s used for. If drug companies didn’t trademark the appearance of their pills, then generic drug companies could make their pills look the same as the brand-name. This would help patients remember what each of their medications is, and avoid potentially dangerous errors (such as taking a drug at the wrong time, taking too much of the drug, missing a dose, etc).
The main thing to remember is that the appearance of a drug has nothing to do with its effectiveness. By using the color and shape of a drug as a marketing tool, brand-name drug companies are trying to fool you into thinking that these things matter, and to trick you into using an expensive brand-name drug when a less expensive one (generic or a different brand-name drug in the same category) would work just as well.
One last thing to keep in mind: The same generic drug can be made by many different generic drug companies, and each of their pills may look different not just from the brand-name pill, but from each other. If your pharmacy changes which generic drug company it buys your medication from, or if you switch pharmacies, your pills might suddenly look different than they did the last time you filled your prescription. Don’t panic! This doesn’t mean that you got the wrong pills. But, if you are at all uncertain or concerned, talk to your pharmacist. Better safe than sorry.
Here’s links to the past Ask Pharmie columns:
Got a question for Ask Pharmie? Send it in.
Thursday, May 8th, 2008
The National Coalition for Appropriate Prescribing (led by the Prescription Project - a sister organization to us here at Prescription Access Litigation) is working to pass the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, a transparency bill requiring pharmaceutical companies to publicly report their gifts and payments to doctors. The Senate version of the bill is
here and the House version is here.
Pharmaceutical and medical device industry marketing to doctors (well over $30 billion each year) takes the form of gifts, honoraria and other payments. This spending subtly and not-so-subtly induces doctors to prescribe newer and more expensive treatments, regardless of whether they’re better. This in turn drives up drug costs and puts patients at risk, because new and heavily marketed drugs are almost always more expensive, even though they are often no more effective than older, established therapies. Newer drugs may also have unknown side effects.
We believe the public deserves to know how much money individual physicians are accepting from industry. (Disclosure laws in Minnesota and Vermont reveal that many doctors receive industry payments of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars a year.) The Sunshine Act will benefit patients, payers, policy makers and taxpayers alike by creating transparency.
Key provisions include:
- Comprehensive and publicly available reporting of information down to the individual prescriber level;
- A low ($25) threshold for reporting; inclusion of all payments; and
- penalties for companies that don’t report.
Sign this petition today to ask your members of Congress to support these bills: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/sunshine
For more information:
- To learn more about industry payments to doctors click here
- For factsheets on the Sunshine Act House and Senate bills click here
- To see the organizations that are members of the National Coalition for Appropriate Prescribing click here
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Thursday, April 24th, 2008
** Breaking News: To see updated information about the cost of Treximet, see our more recent post on this topic, from October 14, 2008: Was PAL right about GSK’s Goober Grape Drug, Treximet? Yes and No. **
GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) sells a popular brand-name prescription drug for migraines, Imitrex. 2007 U.S. sales of Imitrex were $1.12 billion, making it a “blockbuster” in drug industry parlance. A single pill of Imitrex costs about $25.
Glaxo has certainly done its part over the years to preserve its market share on drugs with expiring patents and to prevent consumers from having access to more affordable generic versions, as alleged in several lawsuits that we here at PAL have been involved in (see Relafen and Augmentin, for example).
Well, $1.12 billion in annual sales is too good to just give up, right? Even if Imitrex’s patent is expiring next February? Not surprisingly, then, Glaxo has done a number of things to keep a generic version of Imitrex (sumatriptan) off the pharmacy shelves:
- Later this year, Glaxo will begin selling an “authorized generic” version of Imitrex. Authorized generics really should be called “fake” generics, because they’re most often not generics at all, but the company’s own pill technically sold by a different company, under a license. In this case, the
shill licensee is Dr. Reddy’s, a generic drug company that originally challenged Glaxo’s Imitrex patent and then settled when Glaxo sued them for patent infringement.
- Also later this year (December 2008), Ranbaxy, another generic drug maker, will also begin selling a generic version of Imitrex. Again, this stems from a settlement between Glaxo and the generic maker.
Great, right? Two generic versions of Imitrex will be available by the end of the year! Huzzah! A victory for patients, right?
Not so fast! You don’t think Glaxo is going to let its billion dollar baby leave home so easily, do you?
Introducing GSK’s Treximet! Treximet was just approved by the FDA for acute treatment of migraines in adults.
Is Treximet a fabulous new breakthrough treatment for migraines?
It is a combination of Imitrex (soon to be available as a generic) and naproxen sodium (commonly known as Aleve, available Over the Counter).
So Treximet is a combination of (a) a soon to be generic drug and (b) an Over the Counter drug. Yet you can be sure that Treximet’s price will be similar to what Imitrex costs right now ($25 a pill) and there’s a good chance it will be more expensive, as new drugs typically are ($30 a pill? More? Who knows?).
How much would it cost a patient to take these 2 drugs separately?
- Naproxen sodium can be had for about 8 cents a pill. A single Aleve pill has 220 mg of naproxen sodium. There’s 500 mg of naproxen sodium in Treximet, so a patient would have to take about 2 1/4 Aleve pills to get to 500 mg. Since you can’t really take 1/4 of a pill, let’s assume most patients would take 2. 2 pills would give you 440 mg, so that’s pretty close to the 500 mg. Cost: 16 cents.
- We don’t yet know how much generic Imitrex will cost. But the price of a generic typically drops to about 30% of the brand-name’s price within 6 months of the drug’s patent expiring and more generic companies introducing their own versions. So it’s safe to assume that generix Imitrex will cost about $7.50 by middle of 2009. (Even before then, the price of generic Imitrex will begin dropping from the current price of $25 a pill.) Cost: $7.50
So, by spending $7.50 on generic Imitrex and 16 cents on over-the-counter Aleve, you can get the same thing you’d get in a Treximet — which is very likely to cost $25 or more. Why would you bother with the Treximet? I guess it’s fewer pills to take, but is that worth at least $18 in additional cost?
Interesting, Glaxo apparent didn’t even try to compare Treximet to a standalone-combination of Imitrex and naproxen sodium. Their press release on the FDA approval says:
“Treximet provided more patients migraine pain relief at two and four hours compared to sumatriptan 85 mg, naproxen sodium 500 mg or placebo alone.”
In other words, Treximet worked better than just Imitrex, or just naproxen sodium, or nothing at all. This is kind of like saying that a chocolate cake tastes better than eating the ingredients separately (a bowl of flour, a few eggs, some chocolate) or eating nothing at all.
Here’s some other things I think you can safely gaze into the crystal ball to see:
- Glaxo’s pharmaceutical salespeople will descend on doctors’ offices like ants at a picnic and aggressively pitch Treximet to doctors of all kinds (neurologists, headache specialists, internists and family physicians).
- TV ads will appear in prime time singing the praises of this “new” treatment for migraines. People frolicking through fields of flowers may or may not appear.
Is this the kind of “breakthrough treatment” than PhRMA is always arguing justifies the high cost of prescription drugs?
This type of putting “old wine in new flasks” is straight from Big Pharma’s tired playbook. Instead of engaging in the harder, more long-term process of discovering genuinely new medications, drug companies instead “tweak” existing blockbuster drugs in the most minor of ways, including:
- Combining two existing drugs, such as was done with Vytorin (made up of Zocor, which had gone generic, and Zetia)
- Making a “extended release” version (once a day, once a month, etc)
- Making a “new” version that’s just a chemical tweak of the original but not any better (as Nexium is of the now-generic and over-the-counter Prilosec)
Conclusion: Migraine sufferers, don’t be suckered by Glaxo’s poorly-concealed bait and switch. And go read Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs report on migraine medications.
Tuesday, April 15th, 2008
Over at A Healthy Blog, our friends at Health Care For All (a member of the Prescription Access Litigation coalition) report today on the fight that is brewing in the Massachusetts legislature over a proposed ban on pharma gifts to physicians. They quote an article from yesterday’s State House News Service:
Pharmaceutical companies are attacking Senate President Therese Murray’s effort to block their firms from providing gifts, meals or trips to doctors, calling it an anti-business policy that would hobble efforts to deliver cutting-edge drugs to patients. In a letter to the chairs of the Legislature’s Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee, executives from Pfizer, Amgen, Abbot Bioresearch Center, Genentech, all of which have facilities in Massachusetts, ripped the gift ban as counter to Beacon Hill’s painstaking efforts to lure the life sciences industry, highlighted by Gov. Deval Patrick’s nearly year-old $1 billion incentives plan headed for legislative approval.
It’s somewhat odd to cast a gifts and lunches to doctors as being on par with a $1 billion state incentive plan — unless perhaps the gifts and trips and meals are worth more than $1 billion to the industry — after all, Massachusetts has dozens of teaching hospitals and a new health care law that means more and more people with health insurance. The prescriptions written as a result of a modest investment in gifts and trips and meals could easily garner more than a billion in new sales.
To learn more about the proposed gift ban, go visit the Massachusetts Prescription Reform Coalition.