Watchdog calls for drug-marketing scrutiny

Proposals under review at the Food and Drug Administration to allow pharmaceutical companies to market drugs on social media and other Web sites got fresh scrutiny Monday from the Center for Digital Democracy.

"We believe that the FDA must proceed very carefully as it works to develop rules regarding digital media marketing of pharmaceutical products," CDD Executive Director Jeff Chester said in a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and Principal Deputy Commissioner Josh Sharfstein. "Social media and digital marketing raise critical consumer protection concerns."

These concerns include whether adequate safeguards exist to protect people if firms use personal information to target drug-related online ads at consumers. They also ask whether firms, in marketing their products, should be able to target consumers with e-mail, text messages, blast e-mail or e-mail listservs, chat rooms or social networking bulletin boards that are operated by third parties.

Chester also said the FDA needs to examine the relationship between some online medical information sites and their advertisers, as well as whether social media sites use "marketing applications that stealthily eavesdrop and analyze conversations by and among health consumers."

Noting that the FTC is working on a report related to online privacy, CDD asked that the FDA work closely with the commission on the issue.

The FDA held a public hearing in February on whether to allow drug companies and other firms to use social media and other Internet tools to advertise for certain drugs and medical devices. The FDA has authority to regulate the labeling and advertising of prescription drugs and medical devices. The FDA did not respond for comment.

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