Makers of anticancer drugs are “profiteering,” say 100 specialists from around the world

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 30 April 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2810
  1. Jeremy Laurance
  1. 1The Independent

More than 100 specialists in chronic myeloid leukaemia from around the world, including nine from the United Kingdom, have warned that the high prices that drug companies charge for anticancer drugs are leaving patients without access to treatments that could save their lives.

The group said that the drug industry was guilty of “profiteering” and compared its actions to those of unethical speculators who raise the price of grain after a natural disaster.

“What determines a morally justifiable ‘just price’ for a cancer drug?” they asked in a paper published in Blood.1 “A reasonable drug price should maintain healthy pharmaceutical industry profits without being viewed as ‘profiteering.’”

Of the 12 anticancer drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2012, 11 were priced above $100 000 (£65 000; €80 000) per patient a year, they wrote. In addition, the price of existing drugs of proved effectiveness has been increased by up to threefold.

Three new drugs for chronic myeloid leukaemia—ponatinib, bosutinib, and omacetaxine—were approved by the FDA last year and are awaiting a licence in the United Kingdom and Europe. But their prices were “astronomical,” the authors said.

Imatinib, one of the best known and most effective of the modern anticancer drugs, has been on the market for over a decade and recouped its development costs in two years, said Daniel Vassella, former chief executive of Novartis, its manufacturer. Yet instead of lowering the price Novartis raised it to £21 000 per patient a year. In 2012 imatinib earned global revenues of $4.7bn.

UK patients are shielded from the “direct economic anxieties of illness,” the article says. But Jane Apperley, chairwoman of the department of haematology at Imperial College London and one of the authors, said that high drug prices were still a cause of harm in the UK.

“The price of a drug heavily influences the decision of NICE [the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] whether we can prescribe it on the NHS. I am chief of service at Imperial College, and we are constantly being asked to reduce our spending. We have to look very carefully at the cost of the drugs we use.

“The drugs are very effective at keeping people alive. But if they are priced out of what you can afford, you know that you can keep people alive but you can’t afford to do so. It is completely unsustainable for the NHS, because the costs are going up every year. We need a serious dialogue about whether we can sustain these costs.”

In a statement Novartis said, “We recognise that sustainability of healthcare systems is a complex topic and we welcome the opportunity to be part of the dialogue. Over the years, our programs have evolved to improve patient access to our medicines. We work together with government health care systems, charities and other payers to build successful cost-sharing models.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2810