The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has imposed a record fine of £84m on the American pharmaceutical manufacturing company Pfizer and of £5.2m on its UK distributor, Flynn Pharma. The CMA found that the companies charged unfair prices to the NHS for phenytoin sodium capsules, the anti-epilepsy drug.
The price was previously regulated, but Pfizer deliberately de-branded the drug in September 2012 and immediately raised the price to Flynn Pharma by between 780% and 1600%, which, in turn, raised the price to the NHS by nearly 2600%. This made the drug many times more expensive than in any other European country.
The cost to the NHS rose from around £2m per year to around £50m in 2013. Although other generic drugs are available, there would be serious health risks to patients forced to switch drugs. The NHS thus had no alternative to paying the higher price.
Pfizer claimed that the drug was loss-making before it was de-branded. However, the CMA calculated that this did not justify the size of the price increase; that the higher price enabled Pfizer to recover all these claimed losses within just two months.
The usual practice is for pharmaceutical companies to charge high prices for new drugs for a period of time to enable them to recover high research and development costs. Later, the drugs become available as generic drugs that other manufacturers can produce. The price then normally falls dramatically.
Phenytoin sodium was invented many years ago and there has been no recent innovation and no significant investment. But, unlike with many other drugs, there has been no switching by the NHS because of possible dangers to patients. This has given Pfizer and its distributor considerable market power. As the CMA states in its press release:
Epilepsy patients who are already taking phenytoin sodium capsules should not usually be switched to other products, including another manufacturer’s version of the product, due to the risk of loss of seizure control which can have serious health consequences. As a result, the NHS had no alternative to paying the increased prices for the drug.
In conclusion, the CMA found that “both companies have held a dominant position in their respective markets for the manufacture and supply of phenytoin sodium capsules and each has abused that dominant position by charging excessive and unfair prices”.
Pfizer fined record £84.2m for overcharging NHS 2600% Independent, Zlata Rodionova (7/12/16)
Pfizer fined record £84.2m over NHS overcharging The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (7/12/16)
CMA fines drug firms £90m for over-charging NHS nhe (7/12/16)
Pfizer hit with record fine after hiking price of NHS epilepsy drug by 2,600pc – costing taxpayer millions The Telegraph (7/12/16)
Pfizer, Flynn Get Record Fine on 2,600% Drug Price Increase Bloomberg, Patrick Gower (7/12/16)
Phenytoin sodium capsules: suspected unfair pricing Competition and Markets Authority: Case reference: CE/9742-13, Competition and Markets Authority cases (updated 7/12/16)
CMA fines Pfizer and Flynn £90 million for drug price hike to NHS CMA Press Release (7/12/16)
- What are the arguments for drug companies being allowed to charge high prices for new drugs?
- How long should these high prices persist?
- Sketch a diagram to illustrate Pfizer’s price for its anti-epilepsy drug before and after it was de-branded. Illustrate the effect on Pfizer’s profits from the drug.
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for (a) a drug which is branded and unique; (b) a drug produced by a specific producer but which is generic and can be produced by a number of producers; (c) a generic drug produced by many producers?
- How should a regulator like the CMA decide what price a firm with market power should be allowed to charge?
- Under what legislation did the CMA fine Pfizer and Flynn Pharma? What is the upper limit to the fine it is able to impose? Did it impose the maximum fine on Pfizer?
One type of market failing is the asymmetric information between producers and consumers. Advertising, branding and marketing can either help to reduce consumers’ limited information or play on ignorance to mislead consumers.
Misleading consumers is what the pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser is accused of doing with its Nurofen brand of painkillers. There are very few types of painkiller – the most common three being paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin. These are sold cheaply in chemists as unbranded ‘generic products’. Or you can buy much more expensive branded versions of the same drugs. Many people believe that the branded versions are more effective as they are cleverly marketed.
Reckitt Benckiser has been found guilty by the Australian federal court of deceiving consumers. The company produces various varieties of Nurofen, each claiming to target a particular type of pain. But Nurofen Back Pain, Nurofen Period Pain, Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache are in fact identical! And in many outlets, they were sold at different prices – a form of price discrimination reflecting the strength of demand by consumers for a particular type of pain relief.
And now the UK Advertising Standards Authority is investigating the company over whether its adverts for Nurofen Express are misleading by stating that the product ‘gives you faster headache relief than standard paracetamol or ibuprofen’. Also it is investigating the company’s claim that its products directly target muscles in the head. Both Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache claim on the front of the box to provide ‘targeted rapid relief’.
The company adopts similar practices in its combined pain-killer and decongestant drugs for relieving cold symptoms. For example, its Nurofen Cold and Flu Relief, Nurofen Day and Night Cold and Flu, Nurofen Sinus and Blocked Nose and Nurofen Sinus Pain Relief all contain the same quantities of ibuprofen and the decongestant phenylephrine hydrochloride, but each claims to do something different.
So there are various issues here. The first is whether excessive profits are made by charging a price typically 3 to 4 times greater than the identical generic version of the drug; the second is whether the company deliberately misleads consumers by claiming that a particular version of the drug targets a particular type of pain; the third is whether ‘faster acting’ versions are significantly different; the fourth is whether price discrimination is being practised.
Nurofen maker Reckitt Benckiser suffers advertising headaches Financial Times, Robert Cookson and Scheherazade Daneshkhu (15/12/15)
Nurofen Express advertising claims probed by UK watchdog BBC News (15/12/15)
ASA probing ‘misleading’ painkiller claims in advert by drug firm behind Nurofen The Telegraph, Tom Morgan and agency (15/12/15)
The great painkiller con: Top drug brands accused of huge mark-ups and misleading claims Mail Online, Sean Poulter and John Naish (16/12/15)
Nurofen Under Investigation By UK Watchdog Over Claims Advert ‘Misled’ Customers Huffington Post, Natasha Hinde (15/12/15)
Australian Competition & Consumer Comission media release
Court finds Nurofen made misleading Specific Pain claims ACCC (14/12/15)
- Is price discrimination always against the consumer’s interests?
- What form of price discrimination is being practised in the case of Nurofen?
- How, do you think, does Reckitt Benckiser decide the prices it charges retailers for its pain killers and how, do you think, do retailers determine the price they charge consumers for them?
- Is it a reasonable assumption that branded products in most cases are better than own-brand or generic versions? How is behavioural theory relevant here?
- If Reckitt Benckiser were banned from using the word ‘targets’ when referring to one of its product’s effect on particular type of pain, could the company instead use the words ‘suitable for’ relieving a particular type of pain and thereby avoid misleading consumers?
- What is the best way of improving consumer knowledge about particular types of over-the-counter drugs and their effects on the body?
- Comment on the following statement by Dr Aomesh Bhatt, the company’s medical affairs director: ‘The Nurofen specific-pain range was launched with an intention to help consumers navigate their pain relief options, particularly within the grocery environment where there is no healthcare professional to assist decision making.’
Virtually all manual toothbrushes sold in the UK are made by Oral B (Procter & Gamble), Colgate (Colgate-Palmolive) or Listerene Reach (Johnson & Johnson). This is a powerful oligopoly.
The manufacturers distribute toothbrushes primarily through large powerful retailers, such as supermarkets and Boots. It is difficult for new entrants to persuade these retailers to stock their product. What is more, with large advertising and marketing budgets, existing toothbrush manufacturers make it difficult for new brands to attract customers.
But one company has successfully entered the children’s section of the market when Boots agreed to stock its product. The Rockabilly Kids toothbrush has a feature likely to appeal to both children and their parents. It wobbles! With a weight in the bottom, the brush rights itself, with a wobble, when dropped or simply placed on the basin or shelf.
This clearly appeals to small kids. It also appeals to their parents who can do away with unhygienic toothbrush holders. What is more, the self-righting wobbly toothbrush, by making the whole process of teeth cleaning fun for young kids, can help them gain good habits of oral hygiene.
So just how did the manufacturer overcome the barriers to entry into this well-established oligopoly? The following article examines how.
Can ‘wobbly’ kids toothbrushes shake the Oral B/Colgate oligopoly? The Telegraph, Rebecca Burn-Callander (10/1/15)
- What barriers to entry exist in the manual toothbrush market?
- How did Hamish Khayat overcome these barriers?
- Why did he decide against a toothbrush subscription service?
- How would you decide whether £6.99 is the right price?
- Is it a good idea for him to diversify into electric kids toothbrushes?
- How are the big toothbrush manufacturers likely to respond to the expansion of Rockabilly Kids?
The energy market is complex and is a prime example of an oligopoly: a few dominant firms in the market and interdependence between the suppliers. Over 95% of the market is supplied by the so-called ‘big six’ and collectively they generate 80% of the country’s electricity. There are two further large generators (Drax Power Limited and GDF Suez Energy UK), meaning the electricity generation is also an oligopoly.
This sector has seen media attention for some years, with criticisms about the high profits made by suppliers, the high prices they charge and the lack of competition. Numerous investigations have taken place by Ofgem, the energy market regulator, and the latest development builds on a simple concept that has been a known problem for decades: barriers to entry. It is very difficult for new firms to enter this market, in particular because of the vertically integrated nature of the big six. Not only are they the suppliers of the energy, but they are also the energy generators. It is therefore very difficult for new suppliers to enter the market and access the energy that is generated.
Ofgem’s new plans will aim to reduce the barriers to entry in the market and thus make it easier for new firms to enter and act as effective competitors. The big six energy generators are vertically integrated companies and thus effectively sell their energy to themselves, whereas other suppliers have to purchase their energy before they can sell it. The regulator’s plans aim to improve transparency by ensuring that wholesale power prices are published two years in advance, thus making it easier for smaller companies to buy energy and then re-sell it. Andrew Wright, the Chief Executive of Ofgem, said:
These reforms give independent suppliers, generators and new entrants to the market, both the visibility of prices, and [the] opportunities to trade, [that] they need to compete with the largest energy suppliers…Almost two million customers are with independent suppliers, and we expect these reforms to help these suppliers and any new entrants to grow.
Although such reforms will reduce the barriers to entry in the market and thus should aim to increase competition and hence benefit consumers, many argue that the reforms don’t go far enough and will have only minor effects on the competitiveness in the market. There are still calls for further reforms in the market and a more in-depth investigation to ensure that consumers are really getting the best deal. The following articles consider this ongoing saga and this highly complex market.
Ofgem ramps up scrutiny of Big six accounts Telegraph, Denise Roland (27/2/14)
Energy firms told to trade fairly with smaller rivals BBC News (26/2/14)
Energy regulator Ofgem force trading rules on ‘big six’ suppliers Financial Times, Andy Sharman (26/2/14)
Ed Davey calls on Ofgem to investigate energy firms’ gas profits The Guardian, Sean Farrell and Jennifer Rankin (10/2/14)
UK forces big power companies to reveal wholesale prices Reuters (26/2/14)
Watchdog unveils new rules on Big six energy prices Independent, Tom Bawden (26/2/14)
Energy Bills: New rules to boost competition Sky News, (26/2/14)
- What are the characteristics of an oligopoly?
- Explain the reason why the vertically integrated nature of the big six energy companies creates a barrier to the entry of new firms.
- What are the barriers to entry in (a) the electricity supply market and (b) the electricity generating market?
- What action has Ofgem suggested to increase competition in the market? How effective are the proposals likely to be/
- Why is there a concern about liquidity in the market?
- If barriers to entry are reduced, how will this affect competition in the market? How will consumers be affected?
- Why are there suggestions that Ofgem’s proposals don’t go far enough?
The UK electricity supply market is an oligopoly. Over 95% of the market is supplied by the ‘big six’: British Gas (Centrica), EDF Energy, E.ON, npower (RWE), Scottish Power (Iberdrola) and SSE. The big six also generate much of the electricity they supply; they are vertically integrated companies. Between them they generate nearly 80% of the country’s electricity. There are a further two large generators, Drax Power Limited and GDF Suez Energy UK, making the generation industry an oligopoly of eight key players.
Ofgem, the energy market regulator, has just published a report on the wholesale electricity market, arguing that it is insufficiently liquid. This, argues the report, acts as a barrier to entry to competitor suppliers. It thus proposes measures to increase liquidity and thereby increase effective competition. Liquidity, according to the report, is:
… the ability to quickly buy or sell a commodity without causing a significant change in its price and without incurring significant transaction costs. It is a key feature of a well-functioning market. A liquid market can also be thought of as a ‘deep’ market where there are a number of prices quoted at which firms are prepared to trade a product. This gives firms confidence that they can trade when needed and will not move the price substantially when they do so.
A liquid wholesale electricity market ensures that electricity products are available to trade, and that their prices are robust. These products and price signals are important for electricity generators and suppliers, who need to trade to manage their risks. Liquidity in the wholesale electricity mark et therefore supports competition in generation and supply, which has benefits for consumers in terms of downward pressure on bills, better service and greater choice.
So how can liquidity be increased? Ofgem is proposing that the big six publish prices for two years ahead at which they are contracting to purchase electricity from generators in long-term contracts. These bilateral deals with generators are often with their own company’s generating arm. Publishing prices in this way will allow smaller suppliers to be able to seek out market opportunities. The generating companies will not be allowed to refuse to contract to supply smaller companies at the prices they are being forced to publish.
In addition, Ofgem is proposing that generators would have to sell 20% of output in the open market instead of through bilateral deals. As it is, however, some 30% of output is currently auctioned on the wholesale spot market (i.e. the market for immediate use).
But it is pricing transparency plus small suppliers being able to gain access to longer-term contracts that are the two key elements of the proposed reform.
UK utilities face having to disclose long-term deals Reuters, Karolin Schaps and Rosalba O’Brien (12/6/13)
Ofgem set to ‘break stranglehold’ in the energy market BBC News, John Moylan (12/6/13)
Ofgem plan ‘to end energy stranglehold’ BBC Today Programme, John Moylan and Ian Marlee (12/6/13)
Ofgem outlines proposals to ‘break stranglehold’ of big six energy suppliers on electricity market The Telegraph (12/6/13)
Ofgem widens investigation into alleged rigging of gas and power markets The Guardian, Terry Macalister (6/6/13)
Ofgem moves to break stranglehold of ‘big six’ energy suppliers Financial Times, Guy Chazan (12/6/13)
Ofgem to crackdown on Big Six energy suppliers in bid to cut electricity prices Independent, Simon Read (12/6/13)
Reports and data
Opening up Electricity Market to Effective Competition Ofgem Press Release (12/6/13)
Wholesale power market liquidity: final proposals for a ‘Secure and Promote’ licence condition – Draft Impact Assessment Ofgem (12/6/13)
Electricity statistics Department of Energy & Climate Change
The Dirty Half Dozen Friends of the Earth (Oct 2011)
- What barriers to entry exist in (a) the wholesale and (b) the retail market for electricity?
- Distinguish between spot and forward markets. Why is competition in forward markets particularly important for small suppliers of electricity?
- How will ‘liquidity’ be increased by the measures Ofgem is proposing?
- To what extent does vertical integration in the energy industry benefit consumers of electricity?
- What is a price reporting agency (PRA)? What anti-competitive activities have been taking place in the short-term energy market and why may PRAs not be ‘fit for purpose’?
- Do you think that the measures Ofgem is proposing will ensure that the big generators trade fairly with small suppliers? Explain.
- What are the dangers in the proposals for the large generators?