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The American Rx Drug Boom

Americans are delving deeper than ever into their medicine chests, with nearly 3 billion prescriptions expected to be filled this year, according to a pharmacy trade group.

Consumers will buy an estimated 2.97 billion prescriptions this year, 9 percent more than the 2.73 billion they picked up last year, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores said in a report issued Sunday.

Prescription sales could jump to 4 billion before 2005, said Robert W. Hanna, the group's interim president and chief executive.

Pharmacists, drug makers and consumer groups attribute the rise to an aging population, increased advertising and an expanding array of medicines that target "lifestyle" ailments such as insomnia.

Among new drugs sold this year are American Home Products' Sonata sleeping pill, a Glaxo Wellcome influenza fighter called Relenza, the Hoffman La Roche fat-blocker Xenical, and Plan B, a "morning-after" anti-pregancy pill to be distributed by the Women's Capital Corp.

Community pharmacies account for 63 percent of prescription drug sales in dollar terms -- a projected $76.6 billion this year. Prescription drugs also are sold at nursing homes, hospitals, prisons and via mail order.

"We've been absolutely deluged," said Lowell McNichol, who mans the Safeway drug counter in Petaluma, Calif. "We have drugs available now for things we couldn't treat five, 10, 15 years ago. So we use them."

Among the fastest-selling new drugs are so-called cox-2 inhibitors, a new class of painkillers often referred to as "super-aspirins."

Antidepressants are among the top-selling drugs, with 17 percent more prescriptions this June than in June 1998, according to NDC Health Information Services, which tracks drug sales. Nearly one out of every three anti-depressants sold is Eli Lilly & Co.'s Prozac, one of the oldest drugs of its class.

The increase in prescriptions continues a long-term trend. Americans bought 2 billion prescriptions in 1992 and 2.6 billion in 1997, an increase of about 30 percent.

But Americans spent 64 percent more on drugs in 1997 than in 1993, according to IMS Health, a Plymouth Meeting, Pa.-based industry research company that helped formulate the 1999 estimates.

Written By John Hendren

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