You would think these ten simple words are clear enough: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech..." Apparently not. Congress did, of course, pass a law prohibiting pharmaceutical companies from promoting off-label uses for drugs and put the FDA in charge of that enforcement. Never mind that off-label prescribing is widespread, legal, and helps American patients. Never mind that Congress itself, Medicare, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Institute of Health actively encourage off-label prescribing.
A drug's "label" is the drug's FDA-approved prescribing information--the package insert. Any approved use is considered on-label, while any use not listed on the insert is considered off-label, even though the off-label use may effectively treat a medical condition and reflect the best medical practices. Although the FDA tolerates off-label usage, it forbids companies from promoting such uses. Promotion is really just communication and communication is speech. So the FDA is in direct violation of the First Amendment. Something has to give.
This is not some academic issue, as pharmaceutical companies have been pressed into paying almost $12 billion in fines over the last decade. In fact, just today GlaxoSmithKline announced that it settled its case for a whopping $3 billion.
In other news today, pharmaceutical companies are mounting a concerted legal effort to overthrow or weaken this and similar rules. Their case got a boost this summer when the U.S. Supreme Court cited the First Amendment in striking down a related Vermont law. In its decision, the court wrote that speech used in drug marketing is a form of expression protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. It's good that someone is actually reading the Constitution.