The FDA recently issued a new draft Guidance for Industry titled “Presenting Risk Information in Prescription Drug and Medical Device Promotion.”  This new guidance document represents a comprehensive and fairly detailed overview of the FDA’s approach to reviewing drug and device advertising, albeit with a somewhat surprising omission regarding Internet-specific guidance.

As readers of MassTortDefense know, promotional pieces: (1) cannot be false or misleading, (2) must reveal material facts, including facts about consequences, and (3) should present information about effectiveness and risk in a balanced manner. The guidance confirms that promotional pieces will be judged based on the “reasonable consumer” standard, essentially adopting the definition used by the Federal Trade Commission. Importantly, the FDA also adopts the FTC position that multiple interpretations of a claim are possible if they are all reasonable, and a violation will be found if any one reasonable interpretation violates regulations.

Finally, while the guidance acknowledges the different levels of expertise of consumers and healthcare professionals and notes that the FDA takes account the intended audience in determining compliance, the guidance specifically highlights the social science research finding that experts are “subject to the same cognitive biases and processing limitations as non-experts.”  As a result, it arguably gives insufficient credit to physicians’ abilities to understand important information and make appropriate prescribing decisions;  the recommendations listed in the guidance seemingly apply equally to promotional materials directed to consumers and healthcare professionals.

The general considerations the FDA will use in assessment include (1) use of language appropriate for the target audience, (2) appropriate use of signals (e.g., headlines, change of announcer), (3) appropriate framing of risk information (e.g., severity, specificity), and (4) hierarchy of risk information (i.e., most important risk information should come first).

More specifically, the FDA considers the quantity, materiality, and comprehensiveness of the risk information contained in the piece. Concerning quantity, the FDA notes that risk information should be comparable to benefit information and should include enough detail to convey an “accurate” impression of the product. Among the relevant factors are (1) the number of statements about benefits and risk, (2) the completeness and depth of detail about benefits and risks, (3) the amount of time or space devoted to benefits and risks, and (4) the use of components that enhance or distract from the presentation of risk or benefit information. In assessing materiality and comprehensiveness, the guidance notes that material risks are those that would influence a reasonable member of the target audience—often the most serious and the most frequently occurring risks.

Despite the guidance’s clear and intentional application to Internet advertisements, it makes no special mention of such advertisements and provides no specific guidance on issues unique to Internet promotion.

The comment period for this draft guidance ends August 25, 2009. Additional information, including information on how to submit comments, can be found here.