Pharmaceutical companies, which spend billions of dollars a year promoting their products to doctors, have found that it is very useful to know what drugs a doctor has prescribed in the past. Many use data collected from prescriptionsprocessed by pharmacies — a doctor’s name, the drugs and the dosage — to refine their marketing practices and increase sales.
The Supreme Court on Thursday made it harder for states to protect medical privacy with laws that regulate such practices. In 2007, Vermont passed a law that forbade the sale of such records by pharmacies and their use for marketing purposes. The ruling upheld a lower court decision that struck down the law as unconstitutional.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 6-to-3 majority, said the law violates First Amendment rights by imposing a “burden on protected expression” on specific speakers (drug marketers) and specific speech (information about the doctors and what they prescribed). It is unconstitutional because it restricts the transfer of that information and what the marketers have to say.
In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer explains that the law’s only restriction is on access to data “that could help pharmaceutical companies create better sales messages.” He notes that any speech-related effects are “indirect, incidental, and entirely commercial.” By applying strict First Amendment scrutiny to this ordinary economic regulation, he warns, the court threatens to substitute “judicial for democratic decision-making.”
The law would have been upheld, Justice Breyer says, if the court had treated it as a restriction on commercial speech, which is less robustly protected than political speech. The court’s majority unwisely narrows the gap between commercial and political speech, and makes it harder to protect consumers.
By: Editorial, The New York Times, June 23, 2011