21st Oct 2016

UK big pharma loses EU court battle over cheaper drugs

UK pharmaceutical firms have been defeated in their attempt to put an end to British government incentives to doctors to supply patients with cheaper but equivalent medicines.

The European Court of Justice rejected a complaint by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) that such National Health Service (NHS) schemes were not an illegal inducement under EU law.

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  • UK health authorities are not seeking commercial advantage by the incentive scheme (Photo: Flickr)

In order to reduce public expenditure, the public health authorities in England and Wales introduced schemes providing doctors with financial incentives to prescribe cheap generic drugs rather than their more expensive patented counterparts.

A 2001 European directive relating to medicinal products prohibits "pecuniary advantages or benefits in kind" from being offered to doctors or pharmacists.

The bill aimed to prevent drug firms from offering incentives such as holidays, golf club memberships or other bonuses for prescribing their product, but in an attempted reversal of the legislation's original intention, the companies argued that rewards to medical practices acted in the same way.

But the court found that the directive was concerned primarily with the promotional activities carried out by the pharmaceutical industry and sought to prevent promotional practices that could push doctors to act more in line with their wallet than a patient's interest.

"By contrast, that prohibition does not apply to national public health authorities which ... do not pursue any profit-making or commercial aim," the court said in its ruling.

"Therefore, the financial incentive scheme examined, which forms part of such a policy, cannot be regarded as seeking the promotion of commercial promotion of medicinal products."

"No danger to public health can be established," the court concluded.

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