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Background: The United States (US) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for the protection of the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness and security of human drugs and biological products through the enforcement of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and related regulations. These enforcement activities include regulatory letters (i.e. warning letters and notice of violation) to pharmaceutical companies. A regulatory letter represents the FDA’s first official notification to a pharmaceutical company that the FDA has discovered a product or activity in violation of the FDCA. This study analyzed trends in the pharmaceutical-related regulatory letters released by the FDA during the period 1997–2011 and assessed differences in the average number and type of regulatory letters released during the last four federal administrations.

Methods: Data derived from the FDA webpage. Information about the FDA office releasing the letter, date, company, and drug-related violation was collected. Regulatory letters were classified by federal administration. Descriptive statistics were performed for the analysis.

Results: Between 1997 and 2011 the FDA released 2,467 regulatory letters related to pharmaceuticals. FDA headquarters offices released 50.6% and district offices 49.4% of the regulatory letters. The Office of Prescription Drug Promotion released the largest number of regulatory letters (850; 34.5% of the total), followed by the Office of Scientific Investigations (131; 5.3%), and the Office of Compliance (105; 4.3%). During the 2nd Clinton Administration (1997–2000) the average number of regulatory letters per year was 242.8 ± 45.6, during the Bush Administration (2001–2008) it was 120.4 ± 33.7, and during the first three years of the Obama administration (2009–2011) it was 177.7.0 ± 17.0. The average number of regulatory letters released by the Office of Prescription Drug Promotion also varied by administration: Clinton (122.3 ± 36.4), Bush (29.5 ± 16.2) and Obama (41.7 ± 11.1).

Conclusions: Most regulatory letters released by FDA headquarters were related to marketing and advertising activities of pharmaceutical companies. The number of regulatory letters was highest during the second Clinton administration, diminished during the Bush administrations, and increased again during the Obama administration. A further assessment of the impact of changes in federal administration on the enforcement activities of the FDA is required.


This article was originally published in BMC Health Services Research, volume 13, in 2013. DOI: 10.1186/1472-6963-13-27


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