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French watchdog fines Merck, Reckitt in Subutex generics dispute

PARIS (Reuters) - The French competition authority said on Thursday it had fined Schering-Plough, now owned by Merck, 15.3 million euros ($21 million) over what it called a smear campaign against generic competition to Subutex, its drug for opioid addiction.

It also handed out a fine of 414,000 euros to parent Merck and another of 318,000 euros to British supplier Reckitt Benckiser for anti-competitive behavior in staging the campaign in late 2005.

The decision follows a complaint filed by Actavis-owned generics maker Arrow Generiques against Schering Plough's communication practices towards pharmacists, which the watchdog said aimed to discourage them from ordering generic versions of Subutex, also known as buprenorphine.

As austerity-minded governments seek ways to trim heavy healthcare bills, regulators around Europe are cracking down on deals between drugmakers that unfairly delay the launch of cheap generic medicines.

In a statement, the French competition watchdog said Schering-Plough, which was taken over by Merck in 2009, had disparaged Arrow's generic drug in its sales pitches and granted pharmacists unjustified discounts to prompt them to stock up on Subutex instead.

"We are reviewing the decision and considering appropriate next steps," a Merck spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

Representatives for Reckitt and Arrow Generiques could not immediately be reached for comment.

Earlier this year, the French Competition Authority handed Sanofi a 40.6-million-euro fine for disparaging a generic version of its Plavix blood thinner.

(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon and Natalie Huet; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

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