China Vows to Cut Cost of Cancer Drugs as Blockbuster Film Highlights Issue

The major policy overhaul is announced just as ‘Dying to Survive,’ a film about the plight of poor cancer sufferers, was storming China’s cinemas, earning $232 million in just five days.

China has vowed to accelerate its efforts to cut the costs of lifesaving cancer drugs, a move many are viewing as a response to a local blockbuster that highlights the social ills caused by overpriced medication in the country.

Regulators will “speed up price cuts for cancer treatments,” the state-backed People’s Daily reported over the weekend. The announcement was made just as Dying to Survive , a social drama about the plight of cancer patients was storming Chinese cinemas, earning a whopping $200 million in four days and another $32 million on Monday.

As of 5 p.m. Beijing time on Tuesday, the film had added another $15 million in box-office revenue.

Local box-office analysts expect the film to earn over $600 million, which would make it one of China’s biggest blockbusters ever. 

Directed by Wen Muye and starring Xu Zheng, Dying to Survive tells the real-life story of a Chinese businessman who illegally smuggled generic cancer medication from India to sell to poor patients who couldn’t afford the high cost of officially licensed drugs. The real-life businessman, who is believed to have saved more than 1,000 lives through his illicit sales, was briefly jailed but ultimately freed by a Chinese judge because of his altruism.

The story has been described as China’s version of Dallas Buyers Club, the 2013 Matthew McConaughey film about a Texas man who sold unregulated AIDS drugs to help fellow HIV sufferers.

China’s drug policy overhaul got a further boost on Monday, when China’s Foreign Ministry announced that it had reached a deal with India to reduce tariffs on the import of Indian medicines, especially cancer drugs. “We have decided to expand our imports as well as opening up,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told the media at a briefing in Beijing. “There is a popular movie now in China called Dying to Survive. That movie is about zero tariffs imposition on anti-cancer medicines in China,” she added.

Local critics have hailed Dying to Survive as a creative breakthrough for the Chinese film industry, because of both its fine craftsmanship and for the way it addresses an urgent national social problem — an approach often precluded by the country’s notoriously strict censorship system. The coordinated timing of the film’s release and the People’s Daily report suggests that the authorities may have anticipated the film’s popularity, and decided to use the opportunity to institute reforms and generate some popular good will in the process.

China is the world’s second-largest pharmaceuticals market, trailing only the U.S. Drug sales in China totaled $123 billion last year, according to London-based L.E.K. Consulting. The country is also a key growth market for pharmaceutical companies that produce cancer drugs, with an average of 4.3 million new diagnoses each year.

The impact of China’s price cuts will have major ramifications for both patients and drug producers. Medications already covered under China’s state-backed insurance system will see their prices reduced by about 10 percent, while cancer drugs newly added to the state scheme could see their prices plummet by more than half, Zhao Heng of consultancy Latitude Health told the Financial Times Tuesday.  

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