Behind the “Package Insert”: Loophole in FDA’s Regulation of Off-Label Prescriptions

Yolanda Li, MJLST Staffer

FDA Regulation of Drug Prescription Labeling and the “Package Insert”

Over the recent years, constant efforts have been made towards regulating medical prescriptions in an attempt to reduce risks accompanied with drug prescriptions. Among those efforts is the FDA’s revision of the format of prescription drug information, commonly known as the “package insert”.[1]

The package insert regulation, effective since 2006, applies to all prescription drugs. The package insert is to provide up-to-date information on the drug in an easy-to-read format. One significant feature is a section named “highlights”, which provides the most important information regarding the benefits and risks of a prescribed medication. The highlights section is typically half a page in length providing a concise summary of information including “boxed warning”, “indications and usage”, and “dosage and administration”.[2] The highlights section also refers physicians to appropriate sections of the full prescribing information. In this way, the package insert aims to draw both the physicians’ and the patients’ attention to the prescription of a drug, consequently accomplishing the ultimate purpose of managing medication use and reducing medical errors. Mike Leavitt, the Health and Human Services Secretary of the FDA commented that the package insert “help[s] ensure safe and optimal use of drugs, which translates into better health outcomes for patients and more efficient delivery of healthcare.”[3]

FDA Regulation of Off-Label Prescription and the Emergence of a Loophole

The FDA’s regulations relating to the labeling of prescription drugs, although systematic in its form, are cut short to a certain extent due to its lack of regulation on off-label prescriptions. Off-label prescriptions do not refer to a physician prescribing non-FDA approved drugs, a common misunderstanding by the public. Rather, off-label prescriptions are those that do not conform to the FDA-approved use set out in the FDA-approved label.[4] More specifically, off-label prescription generally refers to: “(1) the practice of a physician prescribing a legally manufactured drug for purposes other than those indicated on that drug’s FDA mandated labeling; (2) using a different method of applying the treatment and prescribing a drug, device, or biologic to patient groups other than those approved by FDA; and (3) prescriptions for drug dosages that are different from the approved label-recommended dosage or for time periods exceeding the label-recommended usage.”[5] For example if Drug A’s use, as mandated by the FDA, is to treat chronic headaches, and a physician prescribes it to treat a patient’s sprained ankle, that is an off-label prescription. However, such practice is common as estimated by the American Medical Association (AMA).[6]

The commonly approach is that the FDA and courts do not to interfere with physicians’ off-label uses.[7] Thus, when the FDA regulates the labeling of approved uses but does not regulate prescriptions for off-label uses, a loophole is formed. Andrew von Eschenbach, M.D., claims that because the FDA’s package insert regulation makes it easier for physicians to get access to important information about drugs, including drug safety and benefits, this regulation helps physicians to have more meaningful discussions with patients.[8] However, physicians’ discretion in prescribing off-label prescriptions would offset the proposed benefit of the FDA regulation because the regulation remains as guidance without force of law once physicians choose to go off from FDA’s approved uses of drugs. The easy-to-understand feature of the package insert and its benefit for a patient’s understanding of the drug becomes futile when physicians exercise discretion and prescribe drugs for uses not written on the inserts. In sum, when a patient receives an off-label prescription, the insert provides them little benefit as it addresses benefits and risks related to a different use of the drug.

It is undisputed that drug manufacturers have less discretion regarding drug labeling than physicians. If a manufacturer included an off-label use on a drug’s label, and promoted the off-label use of the drug, the drug would be considered misbranded. The manufacturer would then be subject to liability[9] as manufacturing a misbranded product in interstate commerce is prohibited.[10] However, the effect of regulations on manufacturers still fail to eliminate the loophole in off-label prescription: in response to the regulations, the manufacturer usually receives FDA approval for only a few drug uses and then relies on physicians prescribing off-label uses to ensure their profitability.[11] In this way, the manufacturer avoids liability under regulation and furthers the loophole in off-label prescription by encouraging physicians to prescribe more off-label uses in order to expand the manufacturer’s market.[12]

Why are Off-Label Prescriptions Difficult to Regulate?

One of the main reasons behind the lack of regulation of off-label prescriptions is the FDA’s objective in ensuring effective delivery of health care. Physicians are encouraged to use discretion and judgment in order to tailor prescription to patients’ individual conditions.[13] Another reason is to increase efficiency in treatments by avoiding the lengthy FDA approval process.[14] Aspirin was widely prescribed to reduce the risk of heart attack long before it was FDA-approved for this purpose; off-label prescriptions have also been proven effective in treatment of cancer, and off-label therapies have prolonged the lives of AIDS patients.[15] Another concern is drug prices in the United States, and promoting off-label uses has been found to help reduce drug prices as increased sales volume enables drug companies to lower their prices.[16] Indeed, off-label prescription has become a mainstream of medicine: “the FDA has long tolerated off-label drug use and has disclaimed any interest in regulating physicians’ prescribing practices.”[17] Today it is unclear whether the agency even has jurisdiction to regulate off-label prescription of drugs.[18]

In sum, there is clear guidance on the labeling of prescription drugs as a result of FDA regulation. However, because of difficulties in enforcement, the custom and widely accepted practice of off-label prescriptions and the inherent benefit of off-label prescription, the effects of the regulation are not as effective as what was firstly planned and proposed.

Notes

[1] The FDA Announces New Prescription Drug Information Format, U.S. Food & Drug Adm’ (Dec. 04 2015) https://www.fda.gov/drugs/laws-acts-and-rules/fda-announces-new-prescription-drug-information-format.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Margaret Z. Johns, Informed Consent: Requiring Doctors to Disclose Off-Label Prescriptions and Conflicts of Interest, 58 Hastings L.J. 967, 968 https://plus.lexis.com/document?crid=35364c11-2939-4e58-bceb-dab7ae8f0154&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fanalytical-materials%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A4P0W-GY20-00CW-906B-00000-00&pdsourcegroupingtype=&pdcontentcomponentid=7341&pdmfid=1530671&pdisurlapi=true.

[5] Lisa E. Smilan, The off-label loophole in the psychopharmacologic setting: prescription of antipsychotic drugs in the nonpsychotic patient population, 30 Health Matrix 233, 240 (2020), https://plus.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1530671&crid=367cf8ad-295e-4f14-97fa-737618718d61&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fanalytical-materials%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A64BT-RR31-JWBS-61KV-00000-00&pdworkfolderid=5506aeec-9540-4837-89f0-5a1acfd81d8b&pdopendocfromfolder=true&prid=1d42abd0-b66e-43af-a61a-0d1fb94180f5&ecomp=gdgg&earg=5506aeec-9540-4837-89f0-5a1acfd81d8b#.

[6] Supra note 4.

[7] Sigma-Tau Pharms. v. Schwetz, 288 F.3d 141, 148, https://plus.lexis.com/document?crid=7d2a2b00-13ad-4953-968e-82a28724aa00&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fcases%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A45RF-5H50-0038-X1PB-00000-00&pdsourcegroupingtype=&pdcontentcomponentid=6388&pdmfid=1530671&pdisurlapi=true.

[8] Supra note 1.

[9] 21 CFR 201.5, https://plus.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1530671&crid=e02a99fb-be65-4525-b83c-a167f3e21b93&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fadministrative-codes%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A603K-BXD1-DYB7-W30Y-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=5154&pdworkfolderlocatorid=NOT_SAVED_IN_WORKFOLDER&prid=ff2b7e20-9dab-49b0-8385-627c16ee0ba2&ecomp=vfbtk&earg=sr2.

[10] 21 CFR 801.4, https://plus.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1530671&crid=721a586d-52a4-4228-b0c3-c464a77d6e6a&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fadministrative-codes%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A638R-X4S3-GXJ9-32FV-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=5154&pdworkfolderlocatorid=NOT_SAVED_IN_WORKFOLDER&prid=ff2b7e20-9dab-49b0-8385-627c16ee0ba2&ecomp=vfbtk&earg=sr6.

[11]  Supra note 4.

[12] Id.

[13]   Supra note 7.

[14]   Supra note 4.

[15]  Id.

[16] Supra note 4, at 981.

[17] ​​Kaspar J. Stoffelmayr, Products Liability And “Off-label” Uses Of Prescription Drugs, 63 U. Chi. L. Rev. 275, 279, https://plus.lexis.com/document?crid=a2181ffc-7f3e-4bce-b82e-08ba9111194f&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fanalytical-materials%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A3S3V-4CF0-00CV-K03W-00000-00&pdsourcegroupingtype=&pdcontentcomponentid=7358&pdmfid=1530671&pdisurlapi=true.

[18]  Id.

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