Power, Knowledge, and Big Pharma: Preliminary Reflections on the Sorrell Vacuum

By Frank Pasquale
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June 26, 2011
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pasquale2I have previously commented on Sorrell v. IMS Health, as a co-author of an amicus brief, a Pharma FaceOff panelist, and a blogger. I’m disappointed by the Sorrell ruling, for reasons largely elaborated in Justice Breyer’s dissent. As he observes, the majority opinion “reawakens Lochner’s pre-New Deal threat of substituting judicial for democratic decision-making where ordinary economic regulation is at issue.” But I’m not surprised at the Lochner revival, given the First Amendment maximalism of the Citizens United Court. For this Court, “free expression” will have to do in the information age what “freedom of contract” did for the early decades of the 20th century: erase even small and incremental steps toward a fairer social order.

Bill McGeveran has characterized Kennedy’s majority opinion in the case as relatively limited, a surgical strike against an overreaching and incompetent state legislature. I want to respond to his interpretation in a future post, after I’ve digested the opinion a bit more. But for now, I’d like to focus a bit of attention on the types of problems Vermont was addressing, to give the case more of a human face. For behind all the familiar Kennedy rhetoric about sacred speech, deeply disturbing industry practices motivated Vermont’s law.

Both PhRMA and IMS Health want us to believe that the case is about the life-saving power of a marketer to recommend drugs to oblivious doctors once it has access to their prescribing records. Never mind that, as Dr. David Orentlicher notes, “For $98 a year . . . physicians can subscribe to The Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics, a respected and independent, biweekly newsletter that provides evaluations of prescription (and over-the-counter) drugs.” Maybe detailing, on occasion, saves lives. But, as the dissent observes, Vermont’s law allowed doctors to permit distribution of their prescribing records in order to receive personalized solicitations. They only needed to opt in.

Now why did Vermont doctors petition the state to limit access to prescriber records? And why might a rational physician choose not to opt in? Hundreds of pages of empirical studies show the problems caused by detailing; many are cited in Breyer’s dissent. But to make the situation a little more concrete, consider some of the literature a physician who rarely prescribes, say, pscyhotropic drugs, may now be reading. These examples are all drawn from two recent pieces by Marcia Angell in the NYRB:

A large survey of randomly selected adults, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and conducted between 2001 and 2003, found that an astonishing 46 percent met criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for having had at least one mental illness within four broad categories at some time in their lives. . . . The new generation of antipsychotics, such as Risperdal, Zyprexa, and Seroquel, has replaced cholesterol-lowering agents as the top-selling class of drugs in the US. . . . [Author Robert Whitaker] is outraged by what he sees as an iatrogenic (i.e., inadvertent and medically introduced) epidemic of brain dysfunction, particularly that caused by the widespread use of the newer (“atypical”) antipsychotics.

***

The pharmaceutical industry influences psychiatrists to prescribe psychoactive drugs even for categories of patients in whom the drugs have not been found safe and effective. [There has been an] astonishing rise in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in children, sometimes as young as two years old.

The FDA approves drugs only for specified uses, and it is illegal for companies to market them for any other purpose—that is, “off-label.” Nevertheless, physicians are permitted to prescribe drugs for any reason they choose, and one of the most lucrative things drug companies can do is persuade physicians to prescribe drugs off-label, despite the law against it. In just the past four years, five firms have admitted to federal charges of illegally marketing psychoactive drugs. AstraZeneca marketed Seroquel off-label for children and the elderly (another vulnerable population, often administered antipsychotics in nursing homes); Pfizer faced similar charges for Geodon (an antipsychotic); Eli Lilly for Zyprexa (an antipsychotic); Bristol-Myers Squibb for Abilify (another antipsychotic); and Forest Labs for Celexa (an antidepressant).

Despite having to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle the charges, the companies have probably come out well ahead.

Whereas IMS Health’s counsel described detailing in oral arguments as “information about lifesaving medications where the detailer goes in and talks about double blind scientific studies that are responsible for the development of drugs that have caused 40 percent of the increase in the lifespan of the American public,” Angell marshals an impressive array of evidence on the unreliability of pharma marketing, and even the underlying studies some of it is based on. Angell also compiles surprising details about the pervasive role of pharmaceutical firm influence over the social construction of mental illness. When you consider the industry’s targeting of “key opinion leaders” (professors and practitioners at elite medical centers), civil society groups, and the DSM, Vermont’s law seems an almost trivial response to a juggernaut of profit-driven promotions for mind cures. And yet even that small step (toward allowing physicians more control over how they are approached by detailers) offended the delicate sensibilities of the majority.

The Breyer dissent’s litany of regulated industry information practices should have dampened Kennedy’s abstracted enthusiasm for a “commercial marketplace” that “provides a forum where ideas and information flourish.” But in the vacuum of First Amendment fundamentalist thought, the complex ecology of fair information practices and calibrated disclosure cannot survive. It’s all-or-nothing: as soon as some parties gain access to prescriber data, everybody has to have it. Doctors can’t choose to structure their interactions with detailers based on profiling of their practices; rather, they face the stark choice of letting in marketers with access to all the prescribing practice data the state requires pharmacies to maintain, or not to talk to them at all.

In Sorrell, privacy and free expression become clashing rights, rather than social values that have long been reconciled (and occasionally reinforced one another) in complex regulatory schemes. We need to maintain that tradition of nuance in information law. Sadly, Sorrell turns its back on it.

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