Gaviscon-maker Reckitt Benckiser UK is being investigated by the Office of Fair Trading for breaching competition law by artificially restricting GP prescribing choices for heartburn.

The drugmaker stands accused of rigging the market by withdrawing packs of off-patent Gaviscon Original Liquid from a database GPs use to search for National Health Service medicines, so that only the branded version - Gaviscon Advance Liquid - would show up on screen.

When looking to prescribe a branded medicine GPs can search a database to check whether the patents are still valid or whether cheaper, generic forms are available. If the patent has expired, the doctor can issue an ‘open’ prescription listing the generic name of the drug, which enables pharmacists to choose whether to dispense the branded version or a cheaper generic equivalent.

As the OFT points out, providing pharmacists with this choice promotes strong price competition between pharmaceutical suppliers and thereby provides substantial savings to the NHS, and it alleges that the withdrawal of Gaviscon Original Liquid from the prescription channel “was deliberately timed to occur before the publication of the generic name for this product” to barr GPs from issuing and ‘open’ prescription.

Complex case
“This case raises significant and complex competition issues relating to the supply of prescription drugs to the NHS,” said Simon Williams, Senior Director for Goods at the OFT, but Reckitt Benckiser “will now have a full opportunity to respond to our proposed findings before we decide whether competition law has in fact been infringed”, he added.

In a statement, the company insists that it “competes fairly and within the letter and spirit of the law in all of our operations”, and that it has co-operated fully with the OFT throughout the inquiry, which began back in 2008 on the back of whistleblower evidence shown during a BBC Newsnight programme.

If ultimately found guilty of breaching competition laws, Reckitt Benckiser could face a fine of up to 10% of its global turnover, which is currently more than £7.5 billion, media reports claim.