Antitrust watchdogs come down on Pfizer for Lipitor dealmaking

The antitrust crackdown in pharma has moved to Australia. Once again, Pfizer ($PFE) finds itself in the middle of a legal fight over its efforts to hang onto Lipitor sales after the drug went off patent and faced competition from cheaper generics.

Rod Sims--Courtesy of ACCC

Australia's antitrust watchdog sued Pfizer, saying the pharma behemoth abused its position in the market to fend off Lipitor competition. According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Pfizer offered pharmacies special rebates and discounts on the drug, provided they limited their purchasing of atorvastatin, its generic.

"Pfizer engaged in this conduct for the purpose of deterring or preventing competitors in the market for atorvastatin from engaging in competitive conduct," ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said in a statement.

Pfizer's top-selling drug for years, Lipitor went off patent in the U.S. in November 2011. As that day approached, Pfizer launched an aggressive effort to hang onto branded sales in the face of generic competition. Among those efforts were deals with payers to make Lipitor a cost-effective--even cheaper--alternative to atorvastatin generics. The strategies did work; though Lipitor lost plenty after generics appeared, the drug did hang onto a higher percentage of its sales than the usual off-patent blockbuster.

But were any of those tactics anticompetitive? In an statement provided to the media, Pfizer said it believes its deals with the Australian pharmacies were competitive. The company declined to comment further, because the case is pending.

It's just the latest version of an antitrust battle over generic competition. U.S. and EU regulators have been on separate quests to slap down generics-delaying tactics, including the "pay-for-delay" patent settlements that have been discussed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Pharmacies and payers have been waging their own battles with Big Pharma and generics makers, suing branded companies and their rivals under antitrust law. For example, California pharmacies sued Pfizer and Ranbaxy Laboratories, accusing the companies of colluding to keep Lipitor copies off U.S. pharmacy shelves, in return for earlier launches in foreign markets.

- read the Bloomberg story

Special Reports: The 10 largest U.S. patent losses - Lipitor | The 15 best-selling drugs of 2012 - Lipitor