Drug firms' tactics exposedWhich? bulletin reveals how they drain NHS funds

05 October 2006

Pills in a cup

Tactics used by drug companies to boost profits over the needs of NHS patients are exposed by a Which? publication today.

Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB) - a 'doctors' bible' on drugs and treatments - reveals how the pharmaceutical industry drains NHS money by undermining efforts to control the massive £10 billion annual NHS drugs bill.

One study has estimated that, just for six drugs, the cost of such tactics by drug companies to the NHS had been as much as £369 million in one year. The issue mainly centres on medicines that doctors prescribe to patients.

Generic drugs

Using generic drugs could save a lot of NHS money. These are drugs which are just known by the name of their active ingredient, and are cheaper than brand-name equivalents.

A generic drug can be put on the market only after the patent of the brand-name drug has expired. But a drug company might withdraw the branded drug before the patent expires, and quickly introduce a new but similar brand-name product. Because the old patent is still in force, no company can release a generic equivalent at this point, and doctors are likely to switch patients straight to the new branded version - which has a new patent. 

By the time a generic eventually appears, patients may already be unwilling to switch from the new, branded drug they've been taking.

Wasting NHS money

Many of these 'new' drugs offer no convincing advantages over the original products in terms of effectiveness or safety. They may be similar chemically to the original, but marketed as being better, or be the old drug in a different form - a capsule rather than a tablet, for example.

Dr Ike Iheanacho, Editor of DTB, said: ‘Strategies designed to obstruct the emergence and use of generic medicines waste NHS money and can be disruptive for patients and doctors alike.

‘Drug companies often give the impression that the new drugs are better than the old, and doctors may be unaware that they are being manipulated.’ 

One infamous example is the antihistamine loratadine (Clarityn) which was taken off the market as a prescription medicine and replaced with the 'new' desloratadine (Neoclarityn), despite the lack of published evidence on how the two drugs compared. In this case, the drug company responsible openly admitted that the move was designed to maintain its market share for antihistamines.