OPDP Director Tom Abrams Retires, Leaving Mark on Drug Promotion Regulation

Nov. 2, 2020 – After 27 years with the Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP) – formerly called the Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communication (DDMAC) – OPDP Director Tom Abrams retired from the agency on Oct. 23 as the primary force behind today’s regulation of prescription drug advertising and promotion. Abrams’ leadership shaped modern-day prescription drug marketing.

Abrams’ tenure “has been marked by his strong support for a vibrant program of social science research, generating data to show how messages are heard and understood, and by clearer guidance to industry about what is acceptable, prioritizing the most important issues,” according to Coalition for Healthcare Communication Executive Director Jon Bigelow. Abrams “built OPDP into a steady, reasonable and predictable guardian to allow industry to effectively communicate with healthcare professionals and patients about innovative medicines.”

OPDP Staff Director Catherine Gray has been tapped to serve as OPDP acting director. Gray is an OPDP veteran and likely will be considered as a permanent replacement for Abrams.

Throughout his career, Abrams blazed a trail in establishing parameters for industry’s drug promotion efforts. “Tom is the architect of today’s regulatory oversight of prescription drug marketing and communications,” said APCO Worldwide Senior Director Wayne Pines, former FDA associate commissioner for public affairs.

“He orchestrated the development of all the current guidances, enforcement policies and research,” Pines told the Coalition. “He achieved this in the most dynamic period in the history of pharmaceutical innovation and communications technology changes. Throughout, he guided his staff with a sure hand and an amicable manner, and established and maintained good relations with the regulated companies and their agencies,” he said. “He built a strong regulatory foundation.”

During his many years at the agency, Abrams was respected by his staff and by industry. “Tom has always been the consummate professional. He was courteous in every engagement, and I genuinely looked forward to seeing him and hearing from him every time I had that opportunity,” said Dale Cooke, president of PhillyCooke Consulting. “He also led DDMAC/OPDP through some very challenging times, as dramatic changes in the marketplace, law, and enforcement environment were rippling through the industry,” Cooke said.

“At every step (and even when I disagreed with him), I saw Tom as putting the interests of public health at the forefront,” Cooke continued. “He sincerely appreciated the need for industry to get important information to the public and the need for industry to do so compliantly. The industry and the public owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Abrams responded to a changing promotional landscape – including First Amendment challenges to off-label promotion rules and the explosion of direct-to-consumer advertising – with research and a step-wise approach, Bigelow noted. “At a time when the FDA is getting significant political criticism,” he said, “Tom Abrams’ career is a reminder that the FDA leadership team and staff includes dedicated professionals working hard to improve regulation of pharmaceuticals.”