GSK, Wal-Mart sell $9 rescue inhaler Devices use new propellant that replaces ozone-damaging CFC versions
Sabine Vollmer, Staff Writer Comment on this story – the www.newsobserver.com GlaxoSmithKline has teamed with Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, to tap the market for "green" asthma inhalers.
The inhalers contain albuterol, a drug that provides asthma and emphysema sufferers with immediate relief. They are powered by hydrofluoroalkane, or HFA, a more ecologically friendly propellant than chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s). CFCs damage the Earth's protective ozone layer.
Four drugmakers make HFA rescue inhalers, which on January 1, 2009 replaced older CFC inhalers as mandated by federal law. At $9 per prescription, the 60-dose ReliOn Ventolin inhaler that GSK production workers in Zebulon fill and package for Wal-Mart is the least expensive.
The partnership is "kind of unique," said Linda Bannister, an Edward Jones analyst who tracks GSK.
GSK spokeswoman Mary Anne Rhyne had no comment about possible plans the drugmaker has to copy the arrangement for other medicines or with other retailers.
ReliOn Ventolin is a private label brand, a brand-name drug developed exclusively for one retailer. It is only available at pharmacies in Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Neighborhood Market, all owned by Wal-Mart Stores.
Private label products, which are commonly used by grocers selling food and paper products, are usually cheaper than brand-name products. But drugmakers have long guarded their rights to medicines that still have patent protection -- mainly because they can charge top dollar for the brand-name drugs.
The "green" albuterol rescue inhalers are somewhat of an anomaly in the pharmaceutical business: Although albuterol is a cheap generic, the inhalers are now more expensive.
Until Dec. 31, patients could buy CFC inhalers for as little as $5 or $10, because the technology had been around for a long time. But because of the new federal law, pharmacies had to stop selling them at the end of the year. The new HFA inhalers, including GSK's own 200-dose Ventolin inhaler, cost from $30 to $60.
The price increase stems from the device that contains the new propellant, not the drug that it delivers.
Bannister said the ReliOn Ventolin partnership "makes sense from a strategic perspective," for both companies.
For Wal-Mart, it drives traffic into the stores, she said. Compared with GSK's own Ventolin inhaler, Wal-Mart's private label version contains fewer doses of albuterol and doesn't count used doses. But at a time when consumers have become cost conscious, the Wal-Mart version costs a lot less.
For GSK, it increases the number of Ventolin inhalers sold, she said.
The British drugmaker, which has its U.S. headquarters in Research Triangle Park, has been struggling to deal with rising generic competition and a drop in sales of its once-popular diabetes drug Avandia.
Rescue inhalers should not be used more than twice a week, but they are essential for asthmatics. Doctors write more than 50 million prescriptions per year, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.
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