Big Pharma's Japanese sales gain as U.S., Europe lag

Expansion in Japan is paying off for Big Pharma. Regulatory reforms have speeded up new drug launches in a market notoriously slow at adopting treatments already in use elsewhere. The government's pricing policies have eased up. Meanwhile, the island nation's rapidly aging population is strengthening demand for drugs. Result? Fast-growing sales at a time when other regions are suffering.

As Bloomberg reports, Pfizer ($PFE) grew Japanese sales to ¥576 billion ($7.3 billion) last year, beating the market rate of 6.9%. And GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) sales in Japan leapt by 28% in 2011, and as much again in the first quarter, making it the fastest-growing in the country among big drugmakers.

Those top performers--Pfizer leads foreign drugmakers in the Japanese market--saw an entirely different scenario play out in the U.S. and Europe. Glaxo's European sales fell by 4% in 2011, while U.S. sales were flat. Pfizer's European sales fell 5% and its U.S. sales dropped 7%.

Other foreign drugmakers poised to take advantage of Japanese growth include three other Big Pharmas in the country's top 10 by market share. Roche ($RHHBY) and Novartis ($NVS) each have 4.4% of the Japanese market, while Merck ($MRK) has a 3.7% share.

Novartis and Merck both say they're aiming for the top 3, with plans to launch lots of new drugs there over the next few years. Last July, several big products won approval in Japan, including Merck's HPV vaccine Gardasil, AstraZeneca's ($AZN) stomach drug Nexium, and GlaxoSmithKline's rotavirus shot Rotarix.

- read the Bloomberg coverage