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Court questions prescription data limits

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court cast doubt yesterday on efforts by states to limit drug manufacturers' use of information about the prescription drugs that doctors like to prescribe.

The dispute is between the state of Vermont and companies that sell doctors' prescribing information to pharmaceutical companies, though without patient names. The drugmakers use the data to tailor their pitch to individual doctors.

The Vermont law had prevented the sale of information about individual doctors' prescribing records without the doctors' permission.

Several justices said the law raised constitutional concerns because it appeared to make it harder for brand-name drugmakers to state their case, while placing no similar restrictions on the state, insurance companies and others who favor the increased use of cheaper generic medicines.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the Vermont law seemed to be "censoring" what doctors could hear. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the court has ruled in the past that governments "can't lower the decibel level of one speaker so that another speaker, in this case the generics, can be heard better."

A federal appeals court struck down the Vermont law as violating the First Amendment, but another appeals court rejected the constitutional challenge and upheld similar laws in Maine and New Hampshire.

The case is being watched by consumer groups that fear a broad ruling could call into question consumer privacy protections. The Obama administration and 35 states urged the court to uphold Vermont's statute. On the other side, The Associated Press joined other media companies and press freedom groups in urging the court to strike down the Vermont law and extend broad constitutional protection to the gathering and use of computerized data. -- AP

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