Speaking of the First Amendment...

by Reed Smith
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Now that Dr. Scott Gottlieb is safely installed as FDA Commissioner, we at DDLaw can end our moratorium on blogposts about First Amendment issues. There was no way we wanted to give his opponents any ammunition by saying nice things about Dr. Gottlieb before his confirmation.

Not so now.

Given what Dr. Gottlieb has said – and is saying – we doubt that the FDA’s absolutist ban on truthful industry speech about off-label uses (pejoratively called “promotion”) will continue much longer in its current form.  For instance, on the FDA’s website, Dr. Gottlieb is quoted here as giving a speech saying:

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Should a patient receive one or even two-year-old care just because the wheels of my government institution and its meticulous work may take longer to turn than the wheels of clinical science?  Some people believe that patients should be treated only according to the clinical evidence included in a drug’s approved indications.  Yet this evidence may be two or maybe three years old, especially in a fast-changing field like cancer, where off label use of medicines provide important opportunities for patients to get access to the latest clinical practice and for doctors to tailor their patients’ treatment plans based on medical need and personal preferences.

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Efforts to limit prescription and scientific exchange to indications only specified on a label could retard the most important advances in 21st century medicine.  The development and deployment of drugs is becoming more and more closely linked to understanding of mechanism of action, which means that physicians can use drugs in more sophisticated ways that cannot all be anticipated on a label, or easily or quickly studied in prospective studies. . . .  More important, medicine is becoming more personalized as tools like genomics make it possible to tailor treatments on an individual basis. Physicians will not be able to always wait for FDA to approve a new label for every one of their patients, and drug companies will not be able to conduct a trial to explore every possible contingency.  In the future, personalization of care could mean that we will have much more off-label use of new medicines, guided by the latest literature, at least until our regulatory approaches are able to fully adapt to a different paradigm where treatment is highly specific to individual patients.  Yet policy forces are tugging in exactly the opposite direction by placing restrictions on the exchange of some of the most pertinent information.

(Emphasis added).  Defendants in cases involving off-label-use-related allegations should consider having their FDA experts review and, if appropriate, rely upon the current FDA Commissioner’s positions – particularly to rebut contrary views offered by former FDA officials.

Dr. Gottlieb’s non-FDA writings show similar solicitude for scientific speech – whether or not that speech originates with FDA-regulated manufacturers.  In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Dr. Gottlieb criticized FDA policies that “prohibited” a manufacturer with a drug undergoing supplemental FDA approval for a new use from “distributing the findings or educating doctors on the new use through sponsored medical education.”  “[A] more measured approach to the regulation of promotion” would allow “sharing of useful information that falls within the bounds of appropriate clinical care.”

Those who pursue a rigid adherence to restrictions on the exchange of off-label information, and who fail to recognize that the sharing of scientific evidence can sometimes have important public health benefits, are guilty of pursuing a rigid standard that does not take measure of the consequences. . . .  [E]stablishing the FDA label as the only determinant for acceptable scientific speech loses sight of the fact that these labels are slow to incorporate important medical results about the effectiveness of medical products. They are not the sole basis for medical practice.

In another AEI article a few years later – shortly after the government lost United States v. Caronia, 703 F.3d 149 (2d Cir. 2012) − Dr. Gottlieb’s criticism of the FDA’s prohibition of truthful speech about off-label uses was even more pointed.

When this [off-label] speech is truthful, nonmisleading, and promulgated in an educational context, it is quite possible that the speech would be deemed constitutionally protected by the courts under doctrines that recognize commercial speech as being subject to First Amendment considerations.

(Footnote omitted).  Basically, Dr. Gottlieb took issue with whether scientific speech concerning off-label uses could ever be considered illegal “promotion”:

A core principle of America’s constitutional speech protections is that the government should not establish what is orthodox, especially when it comes to politics, the arts, religion, and science.  The founders recognized that these matters are by their nature iterative, and that it would be dangerous in a democratic society for the government to use its resources to pick a side in these debates.  Matters that are subject to their own evolution − a core feature of how new science unfolds − are better addressed by adding voices to the debate, not suppressing them.

Dr. Gottlieb even urged FDA regulated manufacturers to stand up and challenge the constitutionality of off-label informational restrictions promulgated by the FDA – the agency he now leads:

[T]he drug industry needs to be willing to take the prerogative to challenge the facts in some of these cases and have that day in court. When investigations turn on the sharing of truthful, nonmisleading information about widely accepted uses of drugs, in fast moving fields like cancer, there is a legitimate question about whether public health is being served by suppressing this sort of information.  However, until these cases are challenged in court, there will remain ambiguity around where the appropriate lines rest, what speech is constitutionally protected commercial speech or clearly violative, and how public health is best served.

(Emphasis added).  Not long after that, a company took up Dr. Gottlieb’s challenge, and the result was Amarin Pharma, Inc. v. FDA, 119 F. Supp.3d 196 (S.D.N.Y. 2015).

To some extent, where one stands depends upon where one sits, but Dr. Gottlieb has enough of a track record on truthful manufacturer speech about off-label uses of drugs and medical devices, and the constitutional and medical implications of suppressing it, that we are more hopeful now than we have ever been that the FDA will see reason, respect the First Amendment, trust physicians, and change its science-suppressing ways.

With that in mind, we examine the newest First Amendment precedent rejecting governmental prohibition of a manufacturer’s truthful speech about its product, Ocheesee Creamery LLC v. Putnam, 851 F.3d 1228 (11th Cir. 2017).  Ocheesee is a food (skim milk) case, but doesn’t involve the FDA – it doesn’t even involve the federal government.  Instead, Ocheesee is a demonstration that, when given the chance, state regulators are still equally capable of behaving just as badly towards the First Amendment as the feds, albeit on a smaller scale.

It may be that Ocheesee doesn’t involve interstate commerce, see 851 F.3d at 1231 n.1, or it may be that there is something peculiar about milk regulation that we don’t know, but the State of Florida (not the FDA or any other federal entity) came down on the plaintiff, described as “a small dairy creamery located on its owners’ farm” that “sells all-natural dairy items,” like a ton of bricks.  Id.  Apparently, the process of “skimming” the cream from whole milk “depletes almost all the vitamin A naturally present in whole milk because vitamin A is fat-soluble and is thus removed with the cream.”  Id.  Thus Florida agricultural regulations require vitamin A to be added to skim milk before it can be sold as “skim milk.” Id.

That was a problem for the plaintiff because, as a matter of philosophy, this business “prides itself on selling only all-natural, additive-free products.”  Id.  It therefore “refuse[d] to replace the lost vitamin A in its skim milk” with a vitamin A additive as Florida law required.  Id.  The State of Florida thus prevented the plaintiff from calling its product “skim milk,” even though that “product contains no ingredients other than skim milk.”  Id.  Instead (and ironically) the state sought to require the plaintiff to call its product “imitation milk.”  Id. at 1232.  Not surprisingly, the plaintiff refused and sued instead.

Readers attuned to the First Amendment no doubt see the problem already.  Calling such a product “skim milk” is truthful.  The State of Florida – like the FDA with truthful off-label speech – sought to suppress the plaintiff’s truthful speech in a commercial context, using the public health (vitamin A is not just good for you, but essential to health) as its reason for doing so.  Who wins – the First Amendment right to engage in truthful commercial speech, or the state’s public-health-based rationale for suppressing such speech?

In Ocheesee, freedom of speech prevailed.  851 F.3d at 1233 (“The sole issue on appeal is whether the State’s actions prohibiting . . . truthful use of the term ‘skim milk’ violate the First Amendment.  We hold that they do.”).

First, the lay of the constitutional land.  Ocheesee applied the now-venerable “Central Hudson” intermediate scrutiny test for constitutionality of governmental restrictions of commercial speech.  851 F.3d at 1233 (citing Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557, 563-64 (1980)).  Thus, Ocheesee did not apply the more speech protective tests enunciated in Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 564 U.S. 552 (2011) (“heightened scrutiny”) (see our discussions here, here, here, and here); and Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S.Ct. 2218 (2015) (“strict scrutiny”) (see our discussion here).  That doesn’t mean that the Eleventh Circuit was unaware of these cases – quite the contrary:

There is some question as to whether under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Sorrell and Reed an analysis to determine if the restriction is content based or speaker focused must precede any evaluation of the regulation based on traditional commercial speech jurisprudence, and if so, whether this would alter the Central Hudson framework.  In Sorrell, the Supreme Court found the restriction at issue to be content based but nevertheless cited, articulated, and applied the Central Hudson test.  And in Reed, the Court arguably broadened the test for determining whether a law is content based. . . .  We need not wade into these troubled waters, however, because the State cannot survive Central Hudson scrutiny, and in any event the [plaintiff] does not argue the State’s restriction was content based or speaker focused.

851 F.3d at 1235 n.7.  Thus, the favorable First Amendment decision in Ocheesee sets a floor for the protection of truthful commercial speech in the Eleventh Circuit that parties arguing Sorrell and Reed may exceed.

Under the Central Hudson criteria, as a “threshold question,” the government (which always has the burden of proof) had to establish that the suppressed speech either concerned “unlawful” conduct or was “false or inherently misleading.”  851 F.3d at 1235-36.  It failed because selling the plaintiff’s product was not unlawful – the state would have allowed its sale under the “imitation” description.  Id. at 1237.  Note the parallel to off-label speech – doctors are free to engage in off-label use, and products so used may be lawfully sold.  “[T]he only difference between the two courses of conduct is the speech.”  Id.

Nor could the speech be considered false or misleading.  The state could not simply “define” a product in whatever way it chose, and declare anything not meeting that definition “misleading.”  The court rejected such “self-evidently circular” reasoning:

Such a per se rule would eviscerate Central Hudson, rendering all but the threshold question superfluous.  All a state would need to do in order to regulate speech would be to redefine the pertinent language in accordance with its regulatory goals.

Id. at 1238.  Again, any resemblence to the FDA’s salami slicing of “intended uses” is entirely intentional.  Consumer “unfamiliarity is not synonymous with misinformation.”  Id. at 1239 (citation and quotation marks omitted).

Next up in Ocheesee was the three-pronged “intermediate scrutiny” Central Hudson test:  (1) was the asserted governmental interest substantial? (2) did the regulation directly advance the that substantial governmental interest? And (3) was the restriction on speech more extensive than is necessary to serve that interest?  851 F.3d at 1235-36.

As in off-label promotion cases, the “substantiality” of the government’s “interest in combating deception and in establishing nutritional” – that is to say product safety and effectiveness – “standards” was concededly “substantial.”  Id. at 1240.  Ocheesee jumped over the second prong and went right to the third, “because the measure is clearly more extensive than necessary to achieve its goals.”  Id.

In all commercial speech cases, “the preferred remedy is more disclosure, rather than less.”  Id. (Supreme Court citation omitted).  Florida’s flat ban on use of the term “skim milk” failed because a disclaimer would serve the same purpose in a “less restrictive” and “more precise” way.  Id.  “[A]llowing skim milk to be called what it is and merely requiring a disclosure that it lacks vitamin A” was sufficient “to serve [the state] interest in preventing deception and ensuring adequate nutritional standards.”  Id.

The First Amendment thus prevailed where the speech is truthful – without the court going even having to go to the trouble of relying on heightened (Sorrell) or strict (Reed) scrutiny, both of which would be argued in truthful off-label speech cases.  Visions of shattered backboards come to mind.  We don’t think Dr. Gottlieb wants the FDA to end up like Bill Robinzine, so we’re looking for a more reasonable off-label speech policy to emerge from the FDA, before a court has to do so for the agency.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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