In 2011, Internet search behemoth Google paid $500 million to settle claims that it had allowed fraudulent Canadian pharmacies to advertise their products in the United States. While the settlement with Google is the most widely-known regarding online advertising, the FDA receives thousands of requests to review pharmaceutical advertisements and promotional materials every day. With the advent of Social Media, the rapidly-increasing number of people coming online, and the burgeoning market for mobile health applications the burden of materials to review is certain to grow.

“The FDA makes a concerted effort to prevent consumers from being subjected to false and misleading information from the pharmaceutical industry. Unfortunately, the FDA’s effort to review advertising and promotions is being  pressed for resources due to the increase in the use of newer web-based advertising techniques,” commented Christopher Paulos, an attorney with the Levin, Papantonio law firm who practices in the area of pharmaceutical litigation.

Earlier this month, Thomas Abrams, the director of the Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP) discussed the issues facing his department in a Q&A session. The OPDP is responsible for reviewing the materials and promotions pharmaceutical companies produce and distribute for their prescription products. Over-the-counter products are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, according to Abrams.

Asked about the complications and challenges that online media poses to the OPDP, Abrams stated:

“The Internet and social media have increased the volume and extent of materials and speeded the delivery of those materials. Websites can have hundreds of pages and can change daily. It is important to know that although we closely monitor what companies say, we generally do not have authority over statements made by independent organizations or persons – what we call third parties – unless they are acting on behalf of a company.”

The director’s statement confirms that consumers may come across information from what appears to be reputable sources online but that have in fact not passed through FDA review or have the organization’s approval. The OPDP is, compared to the amount of media it has to review, at a horrible disadvantage. Recognizing the odds that the 32 members of the review team at the OPDP face, and understanding there is no way that they can sift through all of the media that exists and is being produced on these drugs every day, the group operates a page where consumers can report suspicious or misleading ads, bringing them to the department’s attention.

Unfortunately, the damage is often done before OPDP is able to prevent the message being distributed on outlets such as YouTube and others. In cases like these, once the misleading or inaccurate information has been identified, the department works with the originating source, if it can, to disseminate accurate information to those that could have been exposed.

While the efforts of the OPDP make progress, confronting the misleading and confusing information distributed by some pharmaceutical companies, the work is always ongoing as new advertisements come out every day.

Joshua is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire.