Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held public hearings to better understand the role of, and the risks associated with, the promotion and marketing of FDA-regulated products using the Internet and social media. The last such hearing of this kind (which focused solely on the Internet) was organized by the FDA in 1996; and with a very different landscape before them, the FDA felt it was time to invite several of the industries’ players back to D.C. for another chat.

Of key concern to the FDA during the recent hearings were: (1) how can drug companies safely and effectively advertise on the Internet and via social media, and (2) how best can drug information and health side-effects be disclosed and managed in a social media context. This is no surprise, as FDA appears ready to develop a framework through which it will apply product advertising and promotional labeling statutory provisions and regulations to these communications.

At the outset, both the FDA and its invited speakers, which included representatives from Eli Lilly, Sanofi-Aventis, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Pfizer, Google, Yahoo and others, all agreed that the Internet and social media present both new opportunities and unique challenges, as compared with traditional promotional labeling and print, or broadcast advertisements. Today, drug companies have a greater ability to optimize their message and respond more quickly/more effectively to developments in the marketplace. On the other hand, everyone questioned how much control these same companies are expected to exercise over the enormous magnitude of user-generated content that is found across the Internet. As one presenter described the current landscape, “The industry’s share of voice on the Internet – especially the social media part of the Internet – is rapidly being dwarfed.”

The prevailing view seemed to indicate a willingness and acceptance that drug companies should be responsible and held accountable for any content located on their corporate websites and on third-party sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) over which they exert or influence control. These same companies should not, however, be held responsible for content on third-party sites over which they have no control or influence. Along this line of thinking, online pharmaceutical-marketing expert John Mac of Pharma Marketing News, suggested that the FDA take the unprecedented step of requiring that drug manufacturers put “tags” on their Twitter posts in order to monitor and potentially censor discussions about specific products.

Another concern that was raised in the context of user-generated content across the Internet is the reliability and trustworthiness factor of information that is widely available on sites ranging from corporate websites to blogs to Wikis. PhRMA, among others, suggested the creation of an FDA-approved logo or seal of approval that could be affixed to a particular website, link, or even an information set that is presented on a third-party site. The seal would indicate that the FDA has reviewed and approved the information in question.

A focal point for the hearings was the issue of adverse events. Simply put, drug companies have a legal obligation to disclose adverse events that are brought to their attention in certain situations, even after the drug has been approved by the FDA and released to the market. Two specific issues arose on this topic:

  • Manufacturers were genuinely reluctant and hesitant to create a presence for themselves within the social media universe in order to avoid learning about potential adverse events associated with their drugs. Although the FDA has established guidelines and steps that must be followed by both consumers and health care professionals to report adverse events, there was still concern expressed that a manufacturer could suffer consequences by ignoring or refusing to investigate adverse events that it learns about through social media.
  • Both the speakers and the FDA alike uniformly acknowledged that the medium (i.e., the Internet) and its advertising vehicles (i.e., banners, paid search links, etc.) lend themselves to lesser rather than more disclosures. Hence, these same companies were concerned about how best to present and disclose these potential adverse events and other risks, and avoid running afoul of their reporting requirements, considering so little FDA guidance exists within this area at the current time.

Thomas Abrams, Director of the FDA’s Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communication, concluded the hearing by acknowledging the FDA has much work to do to further understand and institute guidelines for the promotion of FDA-regulated products on the Internet and social media sites.

Why This Matters

If Facebook were a country, its user base would make it the fourth-largest country in the world. The number of users participating in some form of social media interaction is increasing at explosive rates day-by-day. Social media has quickly become an environment in which all manner of communication, information sharing and commerce exists. Although drug companies, large and small, are eager to embrace and engage this environment, many have largely avoided using social media out of fear that its use may result in FDA enforcement action. However, the pressure to adopt social media despite this risk continues to increase as competition grows and more consumers adopt these communication tools.

FDA’s social media hearing was a welcome relief to many. It provided industry leaders and stakeholders an opportunity to take an early lead in contributing to the FDA’s emerging policy on Internet advertising and promotional labeling. FDA is accepting public comments until Feb. 28, 2010 on specific questions it posed to the public (FDA Docket No. FDA-2009-N-0441) (74 Fed. Reg. 48083 (September 21, 2009). With the advent of these meetings, and the likelihood that FDA will begin to apply advertising standards to Internet communications in a more consistent manner – and perhaps continue to engage the industry throughout 2010 and beyond – drug companies should begin to think about and act on: (1) any FDA requests for industry input and guidance on social media and industry regulations; and (2) the creation of social media policies and procedures covering everything from employee do’s and don’ts to the management of adverse event information that surfaces through user-generated content. Companies should also be developing strategies to deal with misinformation about their drugs that they become aware of on blogs and Wiki’s. Lastly, companies must continually keep current on positions, approaches and policies taken or instituted by the FDA.

For more information on contemporary legal issues in social media, including many of the points raised above, we encourage you to download our White Paper entitled, “Network Interference: A Legal Guide to the Commercial Risks and Rewards of the Social Media Phenomenon.

For a detailed analysis of the recommendations and themes raised at FDA’s hearings, please see the Reed Smith Life Sciences Legal Update Blog.