By Kate Greenwood
Cross-Posted at Health Reform Watch
At Regulatory Focus earlier this week, Alexander Gaffney wrote about what he characterized as “a torrent of studies” that FDA is conducting or has proposed conducting on prescription drug promotion, and, in particular, on direct-to-consumer advertisements. The studies include, among others, a survey study aimed at sussing out “the influence of DTC advertising in the examination room and on the relationships between healthcare professionals and patients”, a study exploring similarities and differences in the responses of adolescents and their parents to web-based prescription drug advertising, and a study that will use eye tracking technology to collect data on the effect of distracting audio and visuals on participants’ attention to risk information.
Gaffney speculates that “the proposed studies could indicate coming changes in FDA’s regulatory approach toward advertising[.]” Another possibility is that the studies are part of an effort by FDA to build up the evidence base supporting its current regulatory approach. In a Tweet commenting on Gaffney’s article, Patricia Zettler–a Fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Law and the Biosciences who was formerly an Associate Chief Counsel for Drugs at FDA’s Office of Chief Counsel–asks whether the data generated by the studies could help insulate FDA from First Amendment challenges.
Commercial speech is only protected under the First Amendment if it is not false or–perhaps more relevant in the context of direct-to-consumer advertising–misleading. In Christopher Robertson’s recent essay in the Boston University Law Review, he argues that when the truth about a claim is known, as it likely the case with an on-label direct-to-consumer advertisement, it is sensible to put the burden on the government to “prov[e] that the true speech is misleading…given the epistemic value of truth and our aversion to paternalism, especially as a motivation for speech regulation.”
As I discussed previously here, courts called upon to decide whether an advertisement or form of advertising is true, false, or misleading are permitted “to look to the facts to determine ‘the actual effect speech will have.'” In Florida Bar v. Went for It, for example, the Supreme Court relied on the government’s “106-page summary of its 2-year study of lawyer advertising and solicitation to the District Court,” as well as an “anecdotal record . . . noteworthy for its breadth and detail” in upholding a thirty-day moratorium on direct-mail solicitation of accident victims and their families by personal injury lawyers. In Bronco Wine Company v. Jolly, a California appeals court held that a legislative finding that the descriptor “Napa” was inherently misleading was adequately supported by “the regulatory history of brand names of geographic significance,” hearing testimony, and a survey. By contrast, in Edenfield v. Fane, the Supreme Court invalidated a ban on in-person solicitation by accountants on the grounds that the Board of Accountancy failed to “validate [its] suppositions[.]”
Commercial speech doctrine does not precisely specify the level of deception, or the form or degree of proof, necessary to justify speech-restrictive regulations like those that limit direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising. The government might have to show that such advertising is more often deceptive than not. Or, as in Lanham Act false advertising cases, it might have to show that a substantial percentage (typically fifteen to twenty percent) of a company’s customers is misled by it. Or, a significant risk of deception might be sufficient. Notwithstanding this uncertainty, FDA is wise to prepare to defend (and even fend off) future First Amendment challenges to the laws and regulations governing direct-to consumer prescription drug advertising by building up the evidence base underlying them.