US prescriptions rose by just 8.3% to $235.4 billion dollars in 2004 – the lowest rise in several years – compared with $217.3 billion in sales the previous year, according to the latest statistics from IMS Health, and are forecast to continue to grow at a steady rate of 7.5% to 8.5% in 2005, which is on a par with the global pharmaceutical industry’s compounded annual growth rate of around 7% to 10% through 2008.

“This is the first year since 1995 that the pharmaceutical industry has scored less than double-digit growth,” explained Bruce Boggs, president, IMS Americas. Key factors for the Industry’s more modest growth in 2004 included a mild flu season, increased over-the-counter use of anti-ulcerants and antihistamines, continued competition from generics, and safety concerns with antidepressants and COX-2 inhibitors. Merck’s surprise, withdrawal of Vioxx (rofecoxib) [[01/10/04a]], and potential safety concerns associated with other pain relief medications [[25/01/05b]], resulted in doctors switching patients away from Vioxx or starting them on other COX-2 products. By the end of the year, the prescription market for COX-2s and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs saw a 9% percent decline in total patients.

Cholesterol reducers continue to be the top therapeutic class, and are achieving above-average growth. Pfizer’s cholestrol-lowerer, Lipitor (atorvastatin), continues to be the biggest-selling product in the US for the fourth year running, while AstraZeneca’s Nexium (esomeprazole) anti-ulcerant, Sanofi-Aventis/Bristol-Myers Squibb’s super-aspirin, Plavix (clopidogrel) and GlaxoSmithKline’s asthma treatment, Advair Diskus (fluticasone and salmeterol), all delivered double-digit growth.

IMS Health expects that US prescription growth in 2005 will be sustained by an aging population, as well as a raft of potential new blockbuster drugs, with sales in excess of $1 billion, which look set to be launched in the US this year – Eli Lilly’s Alimta (pemetrexed) for lung cancer [[20/08/04b]], Pfizer’s Lyrica (pregabalin) for neuropathic pain [[04/01/05d]], Novo Nordisk’s diabetes agent, Levemir (insulin detemir), GlaxoSmithKline’s Ariflo (cilomilast) for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [[29/10/03b]], Sanofi-Aventis’ Menactra for meningitis [[17/01/05c]], Genentech/OSI’s Tarceva (erlotinib) for lung cancer [[22/11/04d]], and Roche/GlaxoSmithKline’s osteoporosis agent, Boniva (ibandronate). “2005 will be another solid year for pharma, but it won’t get any easier,” predicted Paul Wilson, IMS vice president, statistical services. “The Industry’s results will depend on sustained innovation, new product performance and the emerging impact of government programs such as Medicare, where the prevailing attitude is one of ‘watchful waiting.’ This year’s results will also depend on how consumers, who are becoming more active in managing their healthcare, exercise their prescription drug choices within managed care and the new Medicare programs,” he noted.