PhRMA Files Amicus Brief to Support Harkonen Fraud Conviction Appeal

Nov. 22, 2011 – Stating that “a robust dialogue” between pharmaceutical companies and the public “would be seriously chilled” if the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upholds the 2009 criminal conviction of former InterMune CEO W. Scott Harkonen for allegedly making false statements about Actimmune in a press release, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) recently filed an amicus or “friend of the court” brief in support of Harkonen’s appeal.

“The Coalition welcomes PhRMA”s participation in this case,” said Coalition for Healthcare Communication Executive Director John Kamp. “The PhRMA brief demonstrates widespread industry support for forcing federal and state law enforcers to recognize the value of industry communication in managing patient health and the power of the recent Supreme Court decision in Sorrell v. IMS Health to defend against these cases.”

The PhRMA brief asserts: “This case concerns an unprecedented prosecution of a pharmaceutical executive for expressing in a press release his scientific opinion about the development of a drug to treat disease. An affirmance of the decision … would threaten core First Amendment principles by establishing that scientific debate over how to interpret data can constitute a crime.”

PhRMA’s brief calls out the following points:

  • The press release in question was not a misstatement of objectively verifiable fact, a trigger for criminal liability;
  • The trial court unconstitutionally permitted the jury to find that the press release was false “not because no reasonable scientist could have reached the conclusion drawn, but because some scientists, mainly those of the [Food and Drug Administration (FDA)], disagreed with that conclusion”;
  • The trial court’s approach violated the First Amendment because a person “may not be convicted for fraud based upon speech about scientific matters unless the level of scientific consensus is such that no reasonable expert could find the defendant’s statement to be true.”

The amicus brief reiterates the Supreme Court decision in Sorrell, which “confirmed that pharmaceutical manufacturers’ communications with doctors about the safety and efficacy of drugs fall within the First Amendment ambit.” PhRMA then states that “the courts should be particularly leery of a government’s attempt to criminalize speech concerning ‘the effectiveness of [a] particular method of treatment of disease.’”

“Sponsor companies have the best information available on the safe and effective use of their drugs,” according to the Coalition’s Kamp. “Systematically eliminating their participation in discussions with healthcare professionals harms patients. It”s time for government to rationalize these rules in court.”

In addition to the Harkonen appeal, other cases that the Sorrell decision may impact in the near future include:

  • U.S. v. Caronia appeal: Alfred Caronia claims that FDA’s limitations on speech regarding off-label uses violated the First Amendment. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit requested additional information following the Supreme Court’s Sorrell decision.
  • Par Pharmaceutical Inc. v. FDA: Par seeks to preserve its First Amendment right to provide truthful information to physicians and other healthcare providers about off-label uses. The case, filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, calls into question the FDA’s authority to censor truthful speech by drug sponsors.
  • An appeal by three former Purdue Pharma executives who pled guilty to misbranding chargesregarding off-label marketing, is slated to be heard Dec. 6 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The former Purdue executives are appealing their exclusion from federal health care programs.

“There is no doubt that Sorrell empowered companies and industry advocacy groups to question the government’s authority when it attempts to chip away at the protections afforded speech by the First Amendment,” Kamp said. “We applaud PhRMA for getting involved.”