Industry resists FDA's social-media stance

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The FDA's Facebook page

“Jurisdictional creep.”  “Overbroad.”  “May be unforeseen consequences.” Months before FDA's expected main venture this summer into regulating medical marketers' activities in social media, the industry reacted sharply to a draft guidance the agency issued in January on requirements for submitting interactive promotional media to regulators.

Comments on the draft from the Coalition for Healthcare Communication tell FDA that the question of how medical-marketer influence or “control” is defined for the purposes of the submissions guidance “is perhaps the most important one to medical publishers, agencies and life science companies.”

“In particular,” the coalition writes, “it appears the FDA is defining control to include company influence over the placement of advertising.” It points out that if FDA interprets advertiser selection of adjacent editorial content as influence or control requiring submissions to the agency, this would make “virtually all media buying an exercise in control, and thus renders all of the material on sites the responsibility of the advertiser from the point of view of FDA.”

That would violate the journalism ethic of having “a virtual Chinese wall between editorial content and advertising,” and lead to the “unforeseen consequence” of swamping FDA with “hundreds—and maybe thousands—of Form 2253 submissions that could overwhelm its capacity.”

The coalition says that some of its members also are concerned that under a broad interpretation, “collaborates on” in the guidance could mean that a firm cannot hold public relations workshops for any media that it supports with advertising or unrestricted educational grants.

Slamming it as “worse than no guidance at all,” the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) says that the document fails to recognize that the courts have repeatedly said the agency is subject to First Amendment free speech protections.

“Agency policy in this area ought to begin with guidance regarding where FDA draws the line between speech that it is and is not permitted to regulate,” WLF says. “The draft guidance brushes aside such concerns.”

Manufacturer-based interests are also criticizing what they see as FDA's overbroad stretch of authority in the draft guidance.

In its comment letter, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) highlights two concerns—an agency assumption that a manufacturer can be held accountable for content written by third-parties on third-party websites if the company merely influences the third-party, and an agency assumption that all manufacturer statements about prescription medicines on social media constitute promotional labeling or advertising.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) says that because of the uniqueness and rapid evolution of social media, it is important for FDA to be flexible in its regulatory approach.

As an example, it cites a healthcare professional who has a specific service arrangement with a firm. Such a person may not be acting on behalf of a firm when he or she generates content at his or her own initiation outside the scope of the contracted services. “In such an instance,” BIO says, “the healthcare professional is representing his or her opinion as a medical professional… and thus not acting on a firm's behalf.”

Pfizer faults the draft guidance for language that “could be read as jurisdictional creep requiring submission of materials that are neither advertising nor labeling.” To lessen this risk, Pfizer supports PhRMA and BIO recommendations that the guidance be changed in favor of quarterly rather than monthly submissions to FDA.

Also calling for more flexibility by FDA, Eli Lilly in its comments asks FDA to make clear in the final guidance that the term “interactive promotional media” necessarily means two-way communication of written text.

This would exclude, Lilly says, such one-way techniques as “links or rollover features leading to additional content, video or flash display, advertising or content that moves/scrolls with or without user assistance, and downloadable tools that allow users to provide inputs with a resulting display of information viewable only by the individual user.”

The Medical Information Working Group says the document “advances legally impermissible interpretations of FDA authority that must be corrected in the final version.” Its comment letter says the draft sets forth an ambiguous and overly broad interpretation of the agency's authority to regulate manufacturer speech and also describes manufacturer “influence and control” in a manner that is not consistent with and broader than both the governing law and earlier FDA statements.

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