The growth in the global pharmaceutical continued to slow in 2004, with a 7% hike to $550 billion dollars, as the sector felt the effects of increased cost-containment efforts., according to the latest data from IMS Health.

This is the first year that global pharma sales have passed the $500 billion threshold, but the market is increasingly being affected by efforts to cut healthcare costs by payers, such as the greater use of generic drugs, which now account for 30% of volume consumption in the US, Canada, Germany and the UK, said IMS. Other factors include higher regulatory hurdles that are making it harder for companies to bring new drugs to market, and safety issues that have led to product withdrawals, said IMS.

North America accounted for nearly 45% or $248 billion of worldwide pharmaceutical sales in 2004, reinforcing its position as the world’s largest market, and was also the fastest growing of the top three regions with an 8% rise. The European Union ranks second with $144 billion, up 6%, while third-ranked Japan managed a more modest 2% rise to $58 billion.

Non-EU regions of Europe managed a 12% hike to $8 billion, but the biggest increase around the globe was seen in China, up 28% to $9.5 billion. “At a time when pharmaceutical growth is moderating in North America, Europe and Japan, China has emerged as a significant growth market, which will support sustained global growth in the future,” said Graham Lewis, IMS vice president, strategic consulting.

Looking at growth by therapeutic category, IMS found that five – cholesterol and triglyceride reducers, angiotensin II receptor antagonists for hypertension, anti-cancer drugs, antipsychotics and drugs for epilepsy – managed increases in the double digits. The AIIRAs grew the fastest at 22%, followed by epilepsy drugs up 18%. Cholesterol and triglyceride reducers remained the top category with sales up 12% to $30 billion, followed by anti-ulcerants up 1% to $24 billion. Anti-cancer agents brushed past the antidepressant category with a 17% leap to $24 billion.

The top five drugs for the year were headed by two cholesterol reducers – Pfizer’s $12 billion cholesterol-lowerer, Lipitor (atorvastatin), and Merck & Co’s Zocor (simvastatin) with $5.9 billion in sales, a decline of nearly 7%, Sanofi-Aventis and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s antithrombotic, Plavix (clopidogrel), powered into third place from eighth in 2003 with a 31% jump to $5 billion. AstraZeneca’s anti-ulcerant drug, Nexium (esomeprazole), ranked fourth, followed by Eli Lilly’s schizophrenia treatment, Zyprexa (olanzapine), both with $4.8 billion in sales but Nexium grew 25% while Zyprexa slipped back 3.5%.