NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. prescription drug sales climbed by 5.1 percent to $300.3 billion in 2009, easily outpacing the 1.8 percent growth rate seen in 2008, according to data collected by IMS Health.
While the growth rate was far stronger than that seen the previous two years, it still represents historically low levels, said IMS, a leading provider of prescription drug data.
Over the past 50 years, the U.S. prescription growth rate dipped below 5 percent only three times, including in 2007 and 2008.
“Despite the severity of the economic environment, the demand for prescription pharmaceuticals remained strong,” Murray Aitken, senior vice president of IMS Healthcare Insight, said in an interview.
“Patients continued their therapies, perhaps more than many had expected, and as a result we saw an increase in spending, taking the market to $300 billion,” Aitken added.
Helping to fuel the growth was a 7.5 percent rise in demand for specialty pharmaceuticals used to treat complex, chronic conditions that now make up 21 percent of U.S. market value.
Sales of targeted biotechnology medicines, such as Roche’s cancer drugs Avastin and Herceptin, grew by 9 percent in 2009.
Prescriptions dispensed through retail channels, such as pharmacies, through mail-order and at long-term care facilities, grew 2.1 percent - twice as fast as in 2008 - to 3.9 billion prescriptions.
Tempering the total dollars spent on U.S. prescriptions was a rise in the use of cheaper generic medicines, which in 2009 accounted for 75 percent of all dispensed prescriptions, up from 57 percent five years earlier. Despite their relatively inexpensive cost, generics still accounted for $74 billion in 2009 sales.
The total number of generic prescriptions dispensed in the United States increased 5.9 percent in 2009, while those for branded drugs fell by 7.6 percent
The shift toward generics is likely to accelerate by 2012, when several major products, including the world’s two biggest-selling medicines - the cholesterol fighter Lipitor and the blood clot preventer Plavix - face competition from cheap generics. Lipitor is sold by Pfizer Inc and Plavix by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co and Sanofi-Aventis.
“We still see that when a product goes generic almost all of the prescriptions, 90 percent or so, are dispensed in their generic form,” Aitken said.
Antipsychotics remained the top-selling class of medicines in the United States with $14.6 billion in sales, about equal to 2008 revenue.
Acid reflux drugs, such as AstraZeneca’s Nexium, were the second-biggest therapeutic class by sales at $13.6 billion, with prescriptions up 5 percent.
Lipid regulators, which include cholesterol and triglyceride lowering drugs, were still the largest class by prescriptions, growing 5 percent to 212 million prescriptions dispensed. But U.S. sales declined 10 percent to $13.6 billion as the majority of cholesterol fighters are now available as generics, pushing the class to third in sales.
Antidepressants ranked fourth in 2009, growing 3 percent to $9.9 billion, IMS said.
“The thing that surprised us compared with what we might have expected a year ago was how the overall demand held up during a year that in many other parts of the economy we saw declines in demand,” Aitken said.
“The higher growth than the prior year we think is notable and underscores the resilience of pharmacotherapy in today’s healthcare equation.”