Socialist Worker

How the drug giants overcharge the NHS

by Joseph Choonara
Issue No. 2022

The policies of the drug multinationals have ramped up the annual NHS drugs bill to over £8 billion, an increase of 46 percent in five years.

Some of the world’s wealthiest corporations are conspiring to block the production of cheap, unbranded medicines. These policies are deepening the financial crisis faced by the NHS.

The tactics employed by drug companies in Britain echo those used in the Third World, where they have notoriously sought to block the emergence of cheap HIV/Aids drugs by strengthening patenting laws.

An investigation by the Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB) has revealed that drug companies operating in Britain are withdrawing profitable medicines from the market and repackaging them under new brand names to prevent the emergence of cheap “generic” alternatives.

Generic drugs - cheap copies of the original branded form, which can be produced when the patent on a drug expires - could cut costs dramatically, but they would also cut the profits of the pharmaceutical giants.

Dr Ike Iheanacho, editor of DTB, told Socialist Worker that in Britain “the figure for generic prescribing is 83 percent. This implies that where doctors have a choice they are writing a generic name on the prescription, not the brand name. The more that is prescribed generically, the cheaper for the NHS.”

Prescriptions

The DTB research focused on products that have gone out of patent - cases where there should be a choice.

“We are focusing on ways that drug companies try to deter generic prescriptions,” said Ike. “They have a range of strategies to try to ensure that patents are switched to another brand name drug.

“The strategy that drug companies often use is to produce a very similar product to the one that is about to go out of patent. For example they can put a drug in a new form or make a combination drug. That is then heavily advertised as being better or more convenient.”

One infamous example is that of the antihistamine known generically as loratadine.

“This drug was marketed by Schering-Plough under the brand name Clarityn,” said Ike. “About five years ago they realised that the drug was going to go out of patent.”

The company was desperate to continue reaping the rewards from this profitable drug. Their first move was to withdraw Clarityn from the market before it had gone out of patent.

“Although the drug disappeared from the market, it was still protected by the existing patent,” said Ike.

“Withdrawing a drug shortly before the patent expires creates a window of opportunity in which companies can launch a substitute for the drug that has just been taken off the market.

“They can then get people using the new drug before a new generic form can be put on the market.”

So Schering-Plough produced a new branded drug - Neoclarityn. The number of prescriptions for the generic form of loratadine is lower than the number of prescriptions for the new branded drug. The tactic proved successful and the money kept rolling in.

According to Ike such tactics are not confined to one or two companies, they are universal in the industry and across the globe.

“Generic drugs are generally not good news for drugs companies so it doesn’t really matter whether it is in the developing world or the industrialised world,” he said.

Wider change

DTB are calling for increased awareness of the drug companies’ tactics among both doctors and patients. But, as Ike pointed out, wider change is needed.

“When a drug gets a licence it does not have to be tested against anything else on the market,” he said.

“There is no need to prove that what they have produced is different or better than what has already been produced.”

In other words, the drug companies should be forced to prove that a new medicine is substantially different to other branded forms of drug before they are awarded a new patent.

For more on the Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin go to www.dtb.org.uk


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Sat 14 Oct 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2022
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