“PROFITS BEFORE PATIENTS REIGNS SUPREME AT FDA”
By Mark A. York (April 22, 2019)
(MASS TORT NEXUS MEDIA) In the midst of a national opioid crisis, the federal agency that monitors drug ads has issued a record low number of warning letters to pharmaceutical companies caught lying about their products.
The Food and Drug Administration has sent just three notice letters to drug makers busted for false marketing their medications to unknowing consumers, the lowest ever since the FDA historic decision to ease strict rules for drug ads in 1997. “It certainly raises questions,” said Dr. David Kessler, head of the FDA from late 1990 through 1996, who’s industry credentials would add weight to the issue of why the FDA is not doing more to monitor false marketing campaigns by Big Pharma and Opioid Drug makers in particular.
The FDA’s Office of Prescription Drug Promotion monitors all ads drug companies issue to make sure patients aren’t being scammed by false assertions or misleading marketing campaigns. Which now seems to be the norm, based on the hundreds of lawsuits filed against Opioid Drug Makers in the last 3 months, and recently consolidated into Opiate Prescription MDL 2804 see Opioid Crisis Briefcase-Mass Tort Nexus, where Big Pharma is being sued by states, cities and counties across the country. The primary claim in almost every suit is long term boardroom coordinated false marketing campaigns designed to push opioid drug prescriptions at any cost.
BILLIONS IN PROFITS
The pharmaceutical industry spent a vast $6.4 billion in “direct-to-consumer” advertisements to hype new drugs in 2016, according tracking firm Kantar Media. That figure has gone up by 62% since 2012, Kantar Media says. This number may seem large at first but compared to the multi-billions in yearly profits just by opioid manufacturers over the last 15 years, the numbers is small. Corporate earnings have risen every years since the push to increase opioid prescriptions in every way possible became an accepted business model Big Pharma boardrooms across the country.
In 2017 and continuing into 2018, Big Pharma has been fighting major legal battles related to off-label marketing of drugs for unintended uses. They also engaged in a parallel strategy, where they were influencing the FDA and other policy making agencies behind the scenes in Washington DC. Big Pharma was paying millions to lobbyists, making campaign donations and generally buying influence as they always have. It was a foregone conclusion that with the Trump administration view of , “no regulatory oversight required” that there would be some loosening of the FDA regulatory shackles.
Big Pharma was getting ready for freedom to sell, sell, sell their drugs in any way they could, including off-label marketing of the drugs for unintended use purposes. A corporate policy, that’s technically illegal, yet results in billions of dollars in profits every years for Big Pharma. Then the FDA rolled out an unexpected new proposed rule, in March 2017 cracking down on “off-label’ marketing of drugs. This new rule change wasn’t in Big Pharma’s bests interests, sending the drug industry into a furious lobbying scramble. Bring in the Trump camp and on January 12, 2018 Big Pharma and the army of lobbyists and elected officials that were recruited, seem to have succeeded in stopping the FDA rules change that would have tightened up “off label” marketing of drugs.
Trump stops FDA enforcement rule change: January 12, 2018 Food and Drug Administration Press Release: FDA Delays Change to “Off-Label” Drug Use Enforcement Rules
WHAT IS “OFF-LABEL” MARKETING?
Global health care giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and its subsidiaries will pay more than $2.2 billion to resolve criminal and civil liability arising from allegations relating to the prescription drugs Risperdal, Invega and Natrecor, including promotion for uses not approved as safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and payment of kickbacks to physicians and to the nation’s largest long-term care pharmacy provider. The global resolution is one of the largest health care fraud settlements in U.S. history, including criminal fines and forfeiture totaling $485 million and civil settlements with the federal government and states totaling $1.72 billion.
“The conduct at issue in this case jeopardized the health and safety of patients and damaged the public trust,” stated Eric Holder, then US Attorney General, “This multibillion-dollar resolution demonstrates the Justice Department’s firm commitment to preventing and combating all forms of health care fraud. And it proves our determination to hold accountable any corporation that breaks the law and enriches its bottom line at the expense of the American people” he added.
The resolution includes criminal fines and forfeiture for violations of the law and civil settlements based on the False Claims Act arising out of multiple investigations of the company and its subsidiaries.
“When companies put profit over patients’ health and misuse taxpayer dollars, we demand accountability,” said Associate Attorney General Tony West. “In addition to significant monetary sanctions, we will ensure that non-monetary measures are in place to facilitate change in corporate behavior and help ensure the playing field is level for all market participants.”
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) protects the health and safety of the public by ensuring, among other things, that drugs intended for use in humans are safe and effective for their intended uses and that the labeling of such drugs bear true, complete and accurate information. Under the FDCA, a pharmaceutical company must specify the intended uses of a drug in its new drug application to the FDA. Before approval, the FDA must determine that the drug is safe and effective for those specified uses. Once the drug is approved, if the company intends a different use and then introduces the drug into interstate commerce for that new, unapproved use, the drug becomes misbranded. The unapproved use is also known as an “off-label” use because it is not included in the drug’s FDA-approved labeling.
“When pharmaceutical companies interfere with the FDA’s mission of ensuring that drugs are safe and effective for the American public, they undermine the doctor-patient relationship and put the health and safety of patients at risk,” said Director of the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations John Roth. “Today’s settlement demonstrates the government’s continued focus on pharmaceutical companies that put profits ahead of the public’s health. The FDA will continue to devote resources to criminal investigations targeting pharmaceutical companies that disregard the drug approval process and recklessly promote drugs for uses that have not been proven to be safe and effective.”
FDA PLEADS NO STAFF
But the agency has long struggled to keep track of the thousands of ads published each year, largely due to lack of staff.
There are approximately 60 FDA staffers responsible for keeping track of at least 75,000 ads and other promotional material published each year. Although in the age of electronic monitoring and hi-tech tracking of data it would seem that monitoring drugs such as Schedule 2 – 4 narcotics or other drugs that are considered high risk for abuse, the FDA could create a quarterly e-review or a flagging system when new campaigns are started by Big Pharma.
“It’s a very, very small unit,” a former high-ranking FDA official said. “It’s historically been underfunded.” Which seems to support the contention that Washington D.C lawmakers are in the pockets of Big Pharma and the hundreds of lobbyists they utilize to ensure a true lack of oversight in the pharmaceutical industry as a whole.
Additionally, many of the ads are submitted to the FDA for review at the same time they begin to run. So by the time the assessment is complete the ad has “already had a significant impact,” the FDA insider said. This policy flies in the face of the creation regulatory oversight based on the fact that when a problem or an issue with a product is discovered, the FDA, EPA or other agency should enforce the law and correct the problem. In the case of the FDA, that is not happening and Big Pharma is and has been aware of the lack of oversight for years.
Critics say the FDA needs to do more to stay on top of an industry with a history of trying to maximize profits by at times misleading consumers, which has recently been described as a policy of “patients before patients” which has resulted in the current Opioid Crisis that’s firmly in place across the United States.
The number of public admonishment letters has been at or close to single digits from 2014 until 2016 during the Obama administration, records show. The FDA sent out 11 of those caution missives in 2016, nine in 2015 and 2014, and 24 in 2013.
A SINGLE FDA WARNING IN 2016
This year, one of the warning letters was sent to Canadian drugmaker Cipher Pharmaceuticals, ordering it stop using deceptive promotional material to hawk its extended-release opioid ConZip.
The ad failed to note “any risk information” highlighting the potentially addictive nature of the powerful painkiller, the FDA letter issued Aug. 24 said. The promotional material was also misleading because it asserted other treatment options “are inadequate,” the oversight agency concluded.
“By omitting…serious and potentially fatal risks, the detail aid…creates a misleading impression about the drug’s safety, a concern heightened by the serious public health impacts of opioid addiction, abuse and misuse,” the FDA said.
The agency demanded that Cipher “immediately cease misbranding” the medication. The drug company responded by yanking the promotional material, the firm’s execs said in a statement issued after the warning letter was made public.
But that was the single caution letter issued to an overhyped painkiller by the FDA this year so far, records show. The other caution letters were sent to Amherst Pharmaceuticals for the insomnia drug Zolpimist, and to Orexigen Therapeutics Inc. for its weight loss drug Contrave.
There are many long term FDA and other senior DC officials who have for whatever reasons, chosen to defer reigning in Big Pharma sales and marketing abuses and now it appears the corrective action has been undertaken in federal courts across the country by mass tort lawyers in litigation which will apparently make the “Tobacco Litigation” of the 1980’s pale in financial comparison.
With the primary lawsuits recently consolidated by in the Multidistrict Litigation titled “National Prescription Opiate Litigation” Case No. MDL 2804, recently assigned to the US District Court, Northern District of Ohio. With the key case heading including “prescription and opiate” which reflects the federal court recognizing that opiate prescriptions have become such a major issue the federal courts will now determine the penalties assessed against Big Pharma. The focus will be on the long term “sales and marketing campaigns” designed in corporate boardrooms of Fortune 100 companies, to increase corporate profits, while ignoring the known catastrophic increases in addictions and other inter-connected healthcare, economic and social upheavels caused by the flood of opioid drugs in the US market.
The FDA maintains that letters to drug companies are merely one tool the agency uses to keep the pharmaceutical industry in line.
“We have many efforts to encourage compliance by industry, including our work on guidance, by providing advice to companies on draft promotional materials, and outreach to our stakeholders,” FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Caccomo said. “The FDA’s priorities regarding prescription drug promotion are policy and guidance development, labeling reviews, core launch and TV ad reviews, training and communications and enforcement.” The key terms referred to by Ms. Caccamo are “guidance and by providing advice” from the FDA, when direct enforcement actions are required, as Big Pharma see the terms “guidance and advice” as harmless and not applicable to their efforts to increase sales and profits. In-house lawyers at Big Pharma have reviewed FDA enforcement failures and offered opinions to the boardrooms for years about the FDA not willing to enforce anything close to restrictions on opioid drug marketing and sale practices, all the while reaping the profits of the opioid crisis.
U.S. DEPT OF JUSTICE INDICTMENTS
While the FDA has failed, the US Department of Justice has launched a massive crackdown on opiate drug makers including indictments of company executives, sales & marketing personnel as well as the doctors and pharmacies that have enabled the flood of easy access narcotics into the US market for over 15 years. The question is “how and why” did the FDA drop the ball or was this an intentional lack of enforcement and oversight by the FDA and other agencies due to Big Pharma influence over Congressional members who would blunt any true oversight of drug companies.
US CONGRESS IS NOT HELPING
Perhaps a look at former US Representative Tom Price, will provide insight into how our lawmakers work within the healthcare industry. Rep. Price was appointed by President Trump to head the Department of Health and Human Services, which the FDA reports to, was forced to resign as HHS head due to various transgression within 6 months of being appointed, as well as leaks that while a sitting congressman he enacted a bill favoring a medical device makers extension of a multi-year government contract. Not only did Price enact the bill, he purchased stock in the company prior to the bill introduction and secured a massive profit on the stock price increase after the contract extension was announced. In normal business circles this is considered “insider trading” and is illegal, but when you’re one of those people in charge of creating the rules and regulations, there’s an apparent “get out of jail card” that comes with your congressional seat.
As long as the US Congress fails to correct the lack of oversight by the FDA and other regulatory agencies into what and how dangerous drugs and products are placed into the US marketplace, there will always be bad drugs entering the healthcare pipeline in the United States, with the now enduring default misnomer of “Profits Before Patients” firmly in place in boardrooms and within our government.
WHITE HOUSE IGNORES BIG PHARMA ABUSE
With the Trump Administration still claiming that no regulatory oversight is needed to monitor the US drug industry, that they can self-regulate, it appears that there will be no letup in the rampant “off-label: and unintended use marketing of pharmaceutical drugs in the United States. The one way that Big Pharma is held accountable is in the courtroom, although financial damages and penalties against the drug companies amounting to billions of dollars each year being awarded by juries, won’t change FDA policy, it does provide a small amount of official recognition that there are ongoing abuses by the pharmaceutical industry in the USA.