FDA's One-click Study

At the beginning of November, FDA announced its intention to conduct a study looking at the so-called "one-click rule." As readers of this blog know, I've termed this, "The 'Rule' That Isn't."

The basic idea behind any version of the one-click rule is that companies can meet their fair balance requirement (21 CFR 202.1(e)(5)(ii)) by including a hyperlink to the risk information, rather than by providing the risk information itself in the original communication. As I've written about previously, this idea has had significant allure for marketers of prescription products but there has never been any indication from the FDA that it was open to it...until now.

I have been working with a few different clients preparing comments on the study proposal outlined by the FDA. Those will be posted to the docket and available for public view at a later date.

In this post, I wanted to take a step back and look at what this study means (and what it doesn't mean) for the immediate and future use of space-limited contexts by prescription product manufacturers and FDA guidance about this issue.

In 1998, FDA took its first enforcement action for Internet marketing. At the time, the FDA noted that "the link to the full prescribing information alone is insufficient to meet the requirements...that advertisements contain fair balance."

This began an 18-year history of the FDA making clear that it did not acknowledge a one-click "rule." This position was further solidified via FDA's 2014 guidance on space-limited contexts (the so-called "Twitter Guidance") that directly addressed the use of Twitter and search engine marketing formats that explicitly limit the number of characters. In that guidance, FDA asserted, "Regardless of character space constraints that may be present on certain Internet/social media platforms, if a firm chooses to make a product benefit claim, the firm should also incorporate risk information within the same character-space-limited communication." This is as explicit a rejection of any version of a one-click rule as FDA could possibly have made.

Just one sentence earlier in the guidance, FDA further asserted that, "If an accurate and balanced presentation of both risks and benefits of a specific product is not possible within the constraints of the platform, then the firm should reconsider using that platform for the intended promotional message (other than for permitted reminder promotion)."

Combined, these two statements established a framework that FDA was explicitly acknowledging could not be used by some manufacturers of prescription products for making claims about the benefits of their products. The consequences of this framework is that in certain contexts only products not subject to FDA's fair balance requirement would be able to provide benefit information about their products.

Of course, "benefit" information includes any suggestion of the product's indication. In practice, this means that prescription products manufacturers are frequently prevented from letting people know that their product(s) are possible treatment options for them; and that FDA's official position, as expressed in the 2014 guidance, is that this is fine.

Many people objected to this aspect of the draft guidance (see, for example, the comments from PhRMA), and that resulted in a brief movement to include a version of the one-click rule in the 21st Century Cures Act.

In that context, FDA's openness to studying these issues is a major step forward. Rather than simply assuming without any evidence that the public is harmed by companies following some version of a one-click rule, FDA is actually studying the issue.

This positive development is balanced, however, with the study design itself. In the proposed study, FDA is comparing a format that makes use of a one-click rule with a format that follows the recommendations from the 2014 guidance. One problem with this study design is that it is comparing a format that the FDA has acknowledged is not available to all product manufacturers because of the nature of their specific indications and risks. Indeed, I'm not aware of a single company that has attempted to use the format FDA demonstrated in that guidance for Google search or a Twitter ad.*

In addition, although FDA's willingness to study this topic is refreshing, the study announcement coming late in 2016 would seem to indicate that the status quo will remain for several years. It has been more than a year since FDA has released any new or updated guidance related to advertising and promotion (the last one was a minor revision in August of 2015), and the existing FDA guidance on space-constrained contexts has some glaring issues, independent of the position on one-click.

Taking a generous view of FDA's speed in fielding this research, it would be difficult to imagine that the final study results would be available before the end of 2017. FDA absolutely takes the work of its research team into account in developing guidance, including the ad-promo research. That probably means that the earliest we would see any update to the 2014 guidance would be 2018.

That's four years after FDA released the draft guidance and nine years after the 2009 hearings. FDA can't be expected to provide guidance that keeps up with the pace of technological change. Indeed, I think that's a virtue rather than a drawback to FDA's approach. It's better to have guidance that lags slightly behind innovation rather than wasting time developing guidance on topics that prove to be mere flashes in the pan. Consider the wasted effort if FDA had developed a guidance dedicated to Sidewiki after its 2009 hearings.

This, however, is a very different situation. FDA's enforcement activity related to its rejection of any version of the one-click rule has spanned nearly 20 years. Throughout that time, marketers of prescription products who want to inform the public about how they can help have been hindered in the ability to make that information available in the platforms that people are showing they prefer. And only now is FDA announcing its intention to see whether that position has any basis in actual experience. 

* If anyone is aware of such an ad, please share it in the comments or via the contact form in the right rail.