Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills and 35 other attorneys general have filed an antitrust lawsuit against the makers of Suboxone, a prescription drug used to treat opioid addiction, over allegations that the companies engaged in a scheme to block generic competitors and cause purchasers to pay artificially high prices.

Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals, now known as Indivior, is accused of conspiring with MonoSol Rx to switch Suboxone from a tablet version to a film (that dissolves in the mouth) in order to prevent or delay generic alternatives and maintain monopoly profits.

Suboxone is a brand-name prescription drug used to treat heroin addiction and other opioid addictions by easing addiction cravings. No generic alternative is currently available. The companies are accused of violating state and federal antitrust laws.

Suboxone SL Tabs (Wikipedia)

“It is difficult to overstate the effects of artificially inflating the cost of a drug that could ease Maine’s opiate addiction epidemic,” said Attorney General Mills. “People will quite literally die because they cannot afford an effective form of treatment. It is unconscionable that in the midst of an epidemic this would be happening. I look forward to working with my colleagues in these other states to hold this manufacturer accountable.”

According to the lawsuit, when Reckitt introduced Suboxone in 2002 (in tablet form), it had exclusivity protection that lasted for seven years, meaning no generic version could enter the market during that time. Before that period ended, however, Reckitt worked with MonoSol to create a new version of Suboxone – a dissolvable film, similar in size to a breath strip. Over time, Reckitt allegedly converted the market away from the tablet to the film through marketing, price adjustments, and other methods. Ultimately, after the majority of Suboxone prescriptions were written for the film, Reckitt removed the tablet from the U.S. market.

Suboxone in previous pill form (How To Kick Heroin website)

The attorneys general allege that this conduct was illegal “product hopping,” where a company makes modest changes to its product to extend patent protections so other companies can’t enter the market and offer cheaper generic alternatives. According to the suit, the Suboxone film provided no real benefit over the tablet and Reckitt continued to sell the tablets in other countries even after removing them from the U.S. market. Reckitt also allegedly expressed unfounded safety concerns about the tablet version and intentionally delayed FDA approval of generic versions of Suboxone.

As a result, the attorneys general allege that consumers and purchasers have paid artificially high monopoly prices since late 2009, when generic alternatives of Suboxone might otherwise have become available. During that time, annual sales of Suboxone topped $1 billion.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern Division of Pennsylvania, accuses the companies of violating the federal Sherman Act and state laws. Counts include conspiracy to monopolize and illegal restraint of trade. In the suit, the attorneys general ask the court to stop the companies from engaging in anti-competitive conduct, to restore competition, and to order appropriate relief for consumers and the states, plus costs and fees.