The year is 2011. The Office of Fair Trading (the predecessor to the current Competition and Markets Authority) contributes to an OECD round table on excessive pricing, concluding that: “firms should not face fines for excessive pricing, and should not face the risk of private damages actions in respect of such behaviour”.

Five years later, in early December this year, the CMA announced that its investigation into the supply of phenytoin sodium capsules by Pfizer and Flynn had concluded with its highest ever fine (£90 million), and ordered the companies to reduce their prices within 4 months. How times change…

Excessive pricing is one of the more controversial types of abuse of dominance – the lack of a bright line test between competitive and anti-competitive pricing has meant that infringement decisions in relation to this form of abuse have been rarely pursued. Indeed, this is the first UK competition authority decision based on excessive pricing by a pharmaceutical company since the 2001 Napp decision, which involved differential pricing in the hospital and community sectors.

As we have previously reported, however, something of a sea change in competition policy currently appears to be taking place, at least for certain parts of the pharmaceutical sector.

The full reasoning of this decision will therefore be closely reviewed. For now, however, the text of the decision remains unpublished. While we wait for a non-confidential version, the following 4 points seem to us to be worth noting:

  1. Phenytoin sodium is not a new drug – it has been off patent for many years, although only entered as a generic following the conclusion of a UK supply deal between Pfizer and Flynn. The case – as with other high profile excessive pricing investigations in the EU and beyond (see here/here) – concerns a sudden and significant jump in previously established market pricing, in this case of around 2,600%. This is an entirely different legal and commercial context to that applicable for new or branded drugs: it would be extremely surprising if this decision provides any new basis for future intervention in relation to drugs which are subject to the PPRS, even at the stage of free initial pricing.
  2. Although two companies are involved, no anti-competitive collusion has been alleged. Rather, the case is based only on abuse of dominance. It is rare for such cases to involve two separate companies. Here, the allegation appears not to be that Pfizer and Flynn are jointly dominant, but that each holds a separate dominant position and has separately proved it. This is a surprising feature of the investigation – proving excessive pricing is notoriously difficult, and the CMA given itself the task of pulling that off twice, with each company being held separately to have extracted supra-competitive prices. Flynn is at once the ‘victim’ of Pfizer’s excessive pricing, and the perpetrator of an abuse of its own.
  3. The basis for the findings of dominance is also far from obvious. While details of how the market has been defined have not yet been released, it appears from a 2015 parallel trade case also relating to Flynn Pharma’s phenytoin sodium product that the drug is only a third line treatment for certain specific types of epilepsies, and that its sales have been in decline for a number of years. It appears that the CMA’s dominance finding may be based on clinical guidance that stabilised patients should remain on one specific brand of product rather than being switched between different formulations even of the same API. The trend to ultra-narrow market definition in the pharma sector thus appears to be continuing (see Perindopril, Paroxetine…) – but query whether it will survive review in the Competition Appeal Tribunal.
  4. And finally, compliance with the price reduction remedy may not be straightforward – the companies will have to calculate what measure of reduction is sufficient to bring the infringement to an end. Pfizer has already been subject to a procedural fine for failure to comply with a procedural order; if the companies miscalculate their price reductions, further fines could follow – in addition to the now inevitable follow-on claims from, at least, the Department of Health.