EU's top court backs antitrust fight in ruling against AstraZeneca

While the pharma industry won a victory in U.S. court this week on off-label marketing, in the European Union, drugmakers weren't so lucky. The EU's top court upheld a $69 million fine against AstraZeneca ($AZN), in a long-running antitrust case. The court's backing lends weight to antitrust officials' ongoing probe of the entire pharma industry.

At issue are drugmakers' strategies for preserving their brands' exclusive hold on markets. Antitrust watchdogs in the EU have been probing branded and generics makers alike, looking for evidence that drug companies colluded to delay cheap generics, or otherwise abused their monopoly power.

As Reuters reports, the AstraZeneca case was on the leading edge of that industry-wide probe. EU officials went after the drugmaker for tactics it used to protect the stomach drug Losec, a.k.a. Prilosec, from copycat rivals. The European Commission alleged that AZ filed misleading information with patent agencies, and, by doing so, blocked or delayed generic versions.

The company appealed the €60 million fine, winning a reduction to €52.5 million ($69 million) back in 2010. But its appeal to a higher authority--the EU Court of Justice--failed. The ECJ upheld the fine, saying AstraZeneca's "abuses" amounted to "serious infringements," and so the fine could not be reduced further.

So, as Reuters notes, the ECJ has endorsed the antitrust squad's pharma investigations. Most recently, officials cited Denmark's Lundbeck, Germany's Merck KGaA and France's Servier, saying their attempts to fight off cheap generics violated competition laws. Regulators dropped one probe aimed at GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), and another investigation into AstraZeneca. Investigations still active this summer include cases involving Teva Pharmaceutical Industries ($TEVA), Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and Novartis ($NVS).

- read the Reuters news