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Pharmaceutical Price Discrimination and Social Welfare


  • Lichtenberg Frank R.

    (Columbia University and National Bureau of Economic Research)


Price discrimination is an extremely common type of pricing strategy engaged in by virtually every business with some discretionary pricing power. The issue of whether price discrimination reduces or increases social welfare has been considered by economists since at least 1920. At that time, it was demonstrated that, under certain (restrictive) conditions, price discrimination will reduce social welfare. Subsequent research has shown that price discrimination can increase social welfare, and that a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for welfare to rise is that total output with discrimination exceeds the no-discrimination level.First, we present evidence about international drug price differentials. Drug prices in the top 5 countries are almost five times as high as they are in the bottom five countries. Certain features of the drug price distribution are surprising. For example, according to our drug price index, the price of drugs in Mexico (which has the second-highest drug prices) is 24% higher than it is in the U.S. (which ranks sixth out of 38 countries). There is a highly significant positive correlation between per capita income and the drug price index: on average, the price of drugs is lower in low-income countries. However, there are large deviations from the regression line. Countries (particularly low-income countries) with similar levels of income pay vastly different prices for drugs.Next, we examine income-related price differentials in the U.S. When price is defined as the amount paid by the patient, there is an inverted-U-shaped relationship between income and price. People in the lowest income category pay 25% less than high income people (16% less if cases when the patient paid nothing are excluded), but people in the middle income category (whose income is 125-200% of the poverty line) pay 6% more than high income people (whose income exceeds 400% of the poverty line).We perform an empirical investigation of whether the necessary condition for price discrimination to increase welfarethat it increase total outputis satisfied in the case of international pharmaceutical prices, by analyzing the relationship across drugs between total output growth and growth in international price dispersion. Drugs that had larger increases in international price dispersion had larger increases in total utilization, controlling for the growth in the mean price of the drug and the drug's vintage. Numerous studies have shown that increased prescription drug use results in improved health outcomes, or the converse: reductions in drug use result in worse health outcomes, such as higher risk of hospitalization and death.In addition to increasing the output of existing products, the ability to engage in price discrimination is likely to increase the number of new products. Contrary to the assumptions of some theoretical models, some markets that would not be served under uniform pricing will be served under price discrimination. This would be the case whenever there are fixed production costs, and the pharmaceutical industry has much higher fixed costs (especially R&D expense) as a percentage of sales than most other industries. Studies have shown that the amount of pharmaceutical R&D investment is influenced by factors (other than the ability to price discriminate) that determine the expected profitability of investment. Studies have also provided evidence that the development and use of new drugs has resulted in significant increases in longevity and health, and that overall, new drugs have been highly cost-effective.

Suggested Citation

  • Lichtenberg Frank R., 2010. "Pharmaceutical Price Discrimination and Social Welfare," Capitalism and Society, De Gruyter, vol. 5(1), pages 1-32, July.
  • Handle: RePEc:bpj:capsoc:v:5:y:2010:i:1:n:2

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Schwartz, Marius, 1990. "Third-Degree Price Discrimination and Output: Generalizing a Welfare Result," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 80(5), pages 1259-1262, December.
    2. Victor Kaftal & Debashis Pal, 2008. "Third Degree Price Discrimination in Linear-Demand Markets: Effects on Number of Markets Served and Social Welfare," Southern Economic Journal, Southern Economic Association, vol. 75(2), pages 558-573, October.
    3. Frank Lichtenberg, 2005. "The Impact of New Drug Launches on Longevity: Evidence from Longitudinal, Disease-Level Data from 52 Countries, 1982–2001," International Journal of Health Economics and Management, Springer, vol. 5(1), pages 47-73, January.
    4. Thomas A. Abbott & John A. Vernon, 2005. "The Cost of US Pharmaceutical Price Reductions: A Financial Simulation Model of R&D Decisions," NBER Working Papers 11114, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. Hostenkamp, Gisela & Lichtenberg, Frank R., 2015. "The impact of recent chemotherapy innovation on the longevity of myeloma patients: US and international evidence," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 130(C), pages 162-171.
    2. Frank LORNE & Sneh SHAH, 2015. "Price Reversal Pattern of ARV Drugs: A Transaction-Cost Approach Digression," Expert Journal of Economics, Sprint Investify, vol. 3(2), pages 93-112.
    3. Tamara Hafner & David Popp, 2011. "China and India as Suppliers of Affordable Medicines to Developing Countries," NBER Working Papers 17249, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Frank R. Lichtenberg, 2015. "Pharmaceutical Innovation, Longevity, and Medical Expenditure in Greece, 1995-2010," International Journal of the Economics of Business, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 22(2), pages 277-299, July.
    5. Lichtenberg, Frank R., 2014. "The impact of pharmaceutical innovation on longevity and medical expenditure in France, 2000–2009," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 13(C), pages 107-127.

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