In the world of pharmaceutical drugs, when a patent runs out on a drug—in theory—it is supposed to become a generic, meaning it contains the same formula and dosing as the name brand drug but is much cheaper. Patents are generally good for 20 years after the invention of the drug—not after it hits the market.
In 2009, the patent on Suboxone, the popular drug for treating opioid dependency, expired.
This put Suboxone’s manufacturer, Reckitt Benckiser pharmaceutical company, at risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars, or 85 percent of its grip on the market, which is booming due to the out-of-control opioid epidemic, here in the U.S. and abroad.
So, the British multi-national decided to tweak Suboxone’s formula, then apply for a new patent. This tweaking, or “product hopping,” is used by pharmaceutical companies to obstruct generic competitors and preserve their monopoly.
Not so fast, said 35 U.S. states and the District of Columbia when they filed a huge anti-trust lawsuit last week against Reckitt Benckiser. According the Daily Beast, they are accusing the pill pushers of engaging in “deceptive and unconscionable” practices.
The product switch in question was from the orange Suboxone tablet to a new, dissolvable filmstrip, which is “…such a thin strip they’ll put it in the Holy Bible, let it melt and eat a page right out of the good book,” said a jailer at a Kentucky prison.
The 35 plaintiffs claim Reckitt Benckiser engaged in “feared-based messaging” and “sham science” to illegally subvert the market for the orange tablets while pushing their “new” product.
According to a criminal probe that began in 2013, Reckitt Benckiser allegedly compensated doctors and lobbied legislators to push the Suboxone filmstrips and even penalized their own employees for not meeting sales targets for the supposed “new drug.”
And, of course, they raised the price of the orange tablets, making them more expensive than the filmstrips, even though the pills are cheaper to make.
Then, in September 2012, claiming a “moral obligation,” Reckitt took the pills off the market and petitioned the FDA to block any generic tablets in the future, citing “pediatric exposure,”according to the New York Times. The FDA didn’t buy Reckitt’s rationale and approved the generic version of Suboxone in early 2013.
Consumer advocates agree that Reckitt Benckiser took product hopping to a new and nefarious level.
“Few, if any, companies have gone as far as to preemptively withdraw an off-patent drug from the market to make way for a newly patented successor…” said public advocacy group Public Citizen, in the Daily Beast.
Now, the question is: Will this anti-trust lawsuit succeed in penalizing Reckitt Benckiser for scheming to extend its monopoly while growing richer and richer by exploiting the opioid epidemic? Stay tuned.
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