The Southern District of New York recently ruled in Amarin Pharma, Inc. et al. v. Food and Drug Administration, et al. that a drug company may engage in “truthful and non-misleading speech” about off-label uses of an approved drug without the threat of a misbranding action under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. No. 1:15-cv-03588 (S.D.N.Y., Aug. 7, 2015). This important decision—which arose out of Amarin’s constitutional challenge seeking to make certain statements about unapproved uses of a triglyceride-lowering drug, Vascepa—builds on recent Second Circuit precedent that allows drug makers more regulatory latitude, at minimum in the Second Circuit, to provide truthful and non-misleading scientific information about unapproved uses for their products. However, the ruling also serves as a reminder of potential False Claims Act (FCA) liability associated with off-label marketing of pharmaceuticals and devices.

Amarin filed its complaint against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after the company received a Complete Response Letter (CRL) from the FDA in connection with its application for approval of a new indication. The CRL indicated that, while clinical studies revealed that Vascepa reduced triglyceride levels, based on its data review, the FDA advised that additional clinical data would be needed before it could approve the drug for additional uses beyond the original approval for “very” high levels of triglycerides. Despite the fact that Amarin sought to make truthful and non-misleading statements about its product to “sophisticated healthcare professionals,” including the physicians who joined Amarin in the lawsuit, the FDA concluded there was insufficient support for approval of the supplemental application for a new indication and stated that any communications about off-label uses of Vascepa could result in enforcement action.

While the FDA described Amarin’s First Amendment claims as a “frontal assault on the framework for new drug approval that Congress created in 1962,” the court rejected all of the government’s counterarguments. Relying on the Second Circuit’s decision in United States v. Caronia, 703 F.3d 149 (2d Cir. 2012), the court held that Amarin could engage in the following activity:

  • Distribute summaries and reprints of the relevant studies in a manner or format other than that specified by the FDA
  • Articulate, in connection with Vascepa, the off-label claim permissible for use on chemically similar dietary supplements
  • Make proactive truthful statements and engage in a dialogue with doctors regarding the off-label use

While the Amarin decision is welcome news for the industry, drug manufacturers must still take care to analyze promotional statements to ensure that the content can be successfully defended as “truthful” and “non-misleading” speech. As the Amarin court acknowledged, manufacturers not only face potential criminal exposure for “false” or “misleading” misbranding, but the promotion of off-label use can give rise to civil claims under the FCA. FCA enforcement in off-label cases—which proceed on a theory that a company caused false claims to be submitted to government health care programs for non-covered and non-FDA-approved uses—have been a huge source of FCA recoveries in recent years. In FY2014, for example, the Department of Justice (DOJ) recovered over $2.2 billion in FCA actions against pharmaceutical and medical device companies stemming from off-label promotion. Regulatory enforcers and qui tam whistleblowers will not hesitate to allege FCA violations where circumstances, for example, allow the inference that narrowly couched promotional statements may have been “truthful” but still factually incomplete and, thus, misleading. The Amarin decision highlights the fact-specific nature of the risk analysis. Amarin relied on truthful statements about Vascepa’s off-label use that were largely derived from an FDA-approved study and writings from the FDA itself on the subject. Rather than shooting from the marketing “hip,” Amarin appears to have invested in building a defensible factual scientific record and preemptively sought an FDA opinion regarding the off-label use of Vascepa before engaging in those communications.

While it remains unclear whether the FDA will appeal the Amarin decision to the Second Circuit, the agency’s decision to let Caronia stand without further appeal suggests that there may be reluctance on the part of regulators to risk a higher court expanding the reach of the Caronia holding across the country. Pharmaceutical and device manufacturers should still proceed cautiously as the FDA determines how it will respond following the Amarin ruling. For example, the FDA updated its draft guidance regarding the dissemination of scientific and medical journal articles following the Caronia decision in February 2014 and agreed in June 2014 to conduct a “comprehensive review [of its] regulatory regime governing communications about medical products,” with the intent of issuing new guidance by June 2015. As the Amarin court noted, this revised guidance is still forthcoming and may be further revised in light of this decision.