Comparing Generic Drug Markets in Europe and the United States: Prices, Volumes, and Spending

September 2017 | Olivier J. Wouters, Panos G. Kanavos, Martin McKee | Original Investigation

Policy Points:

  • Our study indicates that there are opportunities for cost savings in generic drug markets in Europe and the United States.
  • Regulators should make it easier for generic drugs to reach the market.
  • Regulators and payers should apply measures to stimulate price competition among generic drugmakers and to increase generic drug use.
  • To meaningfully evaluate policy options, it is important to analyze historical context and understand why similar initiatives failed previously.

Context: Rising drug prices are putting pressure on health care budgets. Policymakers are assessing how they can save money through generic drugs.

Methods: We compared generic drug prices and market shares in 13 European countries, using data from 2013, to assess the amount of variation that exists between countries. To place these results in context, we reviewed evidence from recent studies on the prices and use of generics in Europe and the United States. We also surveyed peer-reviewed studies, gray literature, and books published since 2000 to (1) outline existing generic drug policies in European countries and the United States; (2) identify ways to increase generic drug use and to promote price competition among generic drug companies; and (3) explore barriers to implementing reform of generic drug policies, using a historical example from the United States as a case study.

Findings: The prices and market shares of generics vary widely across Europe. For example, prices charged by manufacturers in Switzerland are, on average, more than 2.5 times those in Germany and more than 6 times those in the United Kingdom, based on the results of a commonly used price index. The proportion of prescriptions filled with generics ranges from 17% in Switzerland to 83% in the United Kingdom. By comparison, the United States has historically had low generic drug prices and high rates of generic drug use (84% in 2013), but has in recent years experienced sharp price increases for some off-patent products. There are policy solutions to address issues in Europe and the United States, such as streamlining the generic drug approval process and requiring generic prescribing and substitution where such policies are not yet in place. The history of substitution laws in the United States provides insights into the economic, political, and cultural issues influencing the adoption of generic drug policies.

Conclusions: Governments should apply coherent supply- and demand-side policies in generic drug markets. An immediate priority is to convince more physicians, pharmacists, and patients that generic drugs are bioequivalent to branded products. Special-interest groups continue to obstruct reform in Europe and the United States.

Keywords: generic drugs, health expenditures, pharmaceutical policies, prices.

Read on Wiley Online Library

Volume 95, Issue 3 (pages 554–601)
DOI:  10.1111/1468-0009.12279
Published in 2017