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What Is a Blockbuster Drug?

By T. Broderick
Updated: Feb 21, 2024

A blockbuster drug is a drug that generates more than $1 billion US Dollars (USD) in revenue each year. As of 2011, there are roughly a dozen of these drugs on the market, a mix of prescription and over-the-counter medications. Three factors determine whether or not a new medication will become a blockbuster drug: need by the population, marketing to the public and marketing to physicians. As long as these conditions are met, a pharmaceutical company can expect large revenues until its patent for the drug runs out.

In 2011, the three drugs that produce the most revenue are atorvastatin, clopidogrel, and enoxaparin. Atorvastatin, also known as Lipitor, treats high cholesterol. Clopidogrel, also known as Plavix, is an antiplatlet agent also used to treat high cholesterol. Enoxaparin, also known as Lovenox, is an anticoagulant used to treat blood clots. Though these medications are produced by different pharmaceutical companies, three commonalities make each a blockbuster drug.

A population's need for a drug is the primary factor in whether or not a new drug will become a blockbuster drug. The three medications listed above all fill a need. As obesity and type two diabetes rise in the developed world, secondary conditions such as high cholesterol and coronary heart disease develop as well. Each of these three drugs are used in the treatment of these conditions. The success of a drug, though, depends on much more than its need by society.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing of prescription medication is legal only in the United States and New Zealand. As the former is one of the largest consumers of prescription medication in the world, pharmaceutical companies use television and print advertisements in the same way as other businesses selling a product. Advertisements not only try to convince individuals that they need to treat their condition, but that they also need the specific medication the advertisement is trying to sell. These advertisements have created enormous revenue for pharmaceutical companies; the number of blockbuster drugs would be much fewer if these advertisements did not exist.

The final step in creating a blockbuster drug is directly marketing new drugs to physicians and other medical processionals. Pharmaceutical sales representatives visit private practices, hospitals and nursing homes to sell their company's latest products. After meeting with physicians and nurses, representatives usually leave samples that physicians can give to their patients. The goal is that after the patient uses the free sample of medication, he or she will continue to use the medication.

Besides increasing revenue, pharmaceutical companies undertake these aggressive marketing techniques for another reason. If a new medication becomes a blockbuster drug, the pharmaceutical company that produces it has roughly a decade before the patent expires. After that point, other companies can produce a generic version of the drug and sell it for less. As pharmaceutical companies know that their profits on a blockbuster drug will eventually fall, their goal is to sell as much of the drug as they can in the available time.

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