Pharmaceutical companies have capitalised on the vacuum left in the marketplace by the removal of Merck & Co’s non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx (rofecoxib) last September [[01/10/04a]], by hiking their prices, sometimes by as much as 15%, according to a US consumer watchdog.

The price increases were matched by a leap in prescribing of alternatives to Vioxx in the six months since the drug’s removal from the market, with the greatest hike, a 136% rise, seen for Mobic (meloxicam), developed by Germany’s Boehringer Ingelheim and co-marketed in the USA with Abbott Laboratories. Over the same period, the price of the drug rose 9% – more than three times the market average – according to the analysis by Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs. In contrast, generic ibuprofen saw an increase of 28% in prescriptions, but its price stayed largely level over the period, said the report.

Overall, it found that the price of 36 NSAID drugs went up, 17 had a price decline and ten stayed level. Other products showing significant price increases included generic indomethacin (up 15%), Wyeth’s Lodine (etodolac) and McNeil’s Motrin (ibuprofen) 400mg, both up 13%, and the 500mg dose of GlaxoSmithKline’s Relafen (nabumetone), which went up over 10%. Over-the-counter preparations were not included in the analysis.

The report suggests that Mobic’s increase in prescriptions was a result of an advertising campaign introduced after the Vioxx withdrawal – and amid safety concerns raised about two other drugs in the COX-2 inhibitor class, Pfizer’s Celebrex (celecoxib) and Bextra (valdecoxib) – that positioned it as an alternative to Merck’s drug. It also likely stemmed from a perception among physicians that it was gentler on the stomach than the older NSAIDs, said Consumer Reports.

“Mobic’s sharp rise illustrates one of the persistent problems we have in constraining prescription drug costs – the powerful impact of drug advertising and marketing,” said Steven Findlay, managing editor of Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs and author of the analysis.