Ethical drugs, OTC and nutraceuticals


Market facts and data. 2023 packaging numbers. Analysis of a top industrial sector for production and innovation capacity.

Barbara Iascone

The pharmaceutical sector was a driving force for Italian industry again in 2023: in terms of turnover, it achieved +9% and, according to ISTAT data, both volumes (+7.3%) and exports (+9.4%) grew. Europe, and, evidently also Italy, depend heavily on foreign trade for the procurement of active ingredients, given that only 25% of them are produced in the EU, and Italy has a fundamental role in this regard.

Trend of the “drug” sector

Based on ISTAT’s analysis, the pharmaceutical sector as a whole – OTC products and hospital and veterinary medicines – showed in 2023 a growth trend with regards to quantities, recording +7% on 2022.

On the basis of Federfarma analyses, Italian National Health Service expenditure on drugs – with the exclusion of drugs for veterinary use – is, for its part, up +6.9%, with a slightly higher number of National Health Service prescriptions (+1.2%).

Packaging numbers: quantities and consumption
The general breakdown of the different types of drugs is divided into three categories: around 83% of packaging relates to ethical products of classes A, B and C (with reference to the Ministry of Health’s subdivision), around 3% to other ethical products sold without a medical prescription and 14% to OTC drugs, which tend to be on the increase. Our analysis relating to the packaging mix of the Italian drug market takes into consideration only the area of ethical and OTC drugs sold in chemists with a medical prescription, therefore excluding drugs for hospital use and drugs for veterinary use.
On the basis of analyses of the Italian Packaging Institute’s Data Banks, in 2023 around 2,083 billion packages were produced, a growth of +7.3% compared to the previous year, and a +0,2% annual growth between 2010 and 2023. The data only refer to primary packaging, excluding cardboard cases, the descriptive leaflet and any accessories used for dispensing the drug. Transforming these numbers into tonnes of pharmaceutical product packaging, always considering only primary packaging, we arrive at around 53,300 tonnes.
Widening the analysis also to secondary packaging, accessories, closures and packaging for transport, we arrive at a total of around 118,900 tonnes used.

Table 1. Evolutionary trend in the production of packs of drugs for human use in the ETHICS and OTC area. Index numbers calculated with reference to numbers of packagings.
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
2030 2050 2061 2071 2081 2052 2003 1965 1951 1933 1916 1839 1950 2086
Source: banca dati Istituto Italiano Imballaggio

The packaging mix subdivided by materials
The pharmaceutical sector has always shown strong rigidity with respect to changes in the packaging mix, due to the nature of the product under analysis. Any changes in this sense involve a series of controls and protocols to safeguard safety in the preservation of the product which make it difficult to contemplate changes the type of packaging.

packaging. Any variations in the segmentation of the packaging therefore relate exclusively to the trends of the different sub-sectors, which can also affect the trends of the different types of packaging. With regards to primary packaging, the findings of the Italian Packaging Institute with reference to 2023 are set out below.

  • 61.2% is attributable to aluminium. The blister alone represents 56.4% of the entire sector, while flexible and rigid tubes stand at 3.5% and spray cans 1%.
  • The second most used material remains glass, with 20.1% and different types of packages: vials for drinkable products (44.1%), vials for injectable products (31.1%) and bottles for syrups (24.4%). Glass vials for ophthalmic products account for 0.4%, overtaken by plastic, now pre-eminent in the category.
  • With 18.5% we then have plastic packaging, composed of various bottles and flexible tubes, cells and sachets in flexible laminate, strips, etc.
  • Spiral cardboard containers for granular pharmaceutical products represent 0.2% of the market.
Table 2 - Packaging mix of pharmaceuticals. % values refer to packaging according to product category.
  2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
Aluminum packaging 60.7 60.5 60 60.7 61 61.1 61.2
Blistered products 55.9 55.8 55.4 56.5 56.4 56.5 56.7
Flexible and rigid Aluminium tubes 3.8 3.7 3.6 3.3 3.6 3.6 3.5
Metal spray cans 1 1 1 0.9 1 1 1
Glass packaging (vials, flacons, bottles) 20.2 20.5 21 20.7 20.3 20.2 20.1
Plastic packaging 18.9 18.8 18.8 18.4 18.5 18.5 18.5
Flacons, flexible tubes, etc 12 12 12.1 11.9 11.9 11.9 11.9
Bubble packs, strips, polylaminate bags, monodose container 6.9 6.8 6.7 6.5 6.6 6.6 6.6
Spiral-wound cartone 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100 100

Type of product

(medical forms)
Always with reference to only ethical and OTC drugs sold in chemists, the 2023 analysis reveals that 64.5% of drugs are in solid form (including granules and tablets), 30% in liquid form and 5.5% in other forms (creams, gels, foams, trans-dermal, etc.).

Each of these is characterised by a different packaging mix; starting from liquid and cream products, there continues to be a slight shift in favour of plastic compared to glass packaging.

Liquid products. These are drugs to be taken orally, to be injected and non-drinkable drugs (mainly ophthalmic). In recent years plastic bottles have gained one percentage point in the field of liquid drugs to be taken orally: glass accounts for 61% and plastic 36%, while the remaining 3% is represented by sachets in laminated material. Injectable liquid drugs are packaged exclusively in glass, while the third category of liquid medicines sees a predominance of plastic (93%), as well as 5% of sachets in laminated material and the remaining 2% glass vials.

Solid products. The packaging mix has remained unchanged compared to the last few years. Starting with drugs to be taken orally (granules, tablets and dragees, etc.), the packaging mix is subdivided as follows: 92% blisters in Alu/PVC or Alu/Alu, the remaining part is divided between sachets in poly-laminated material (4.5%), plastic bottles (2%), rigid aluminium tubes (1%), and glass vials (0.5%).

Other types of products. Creams, ointments, gel and foam have shifted slightly towards plastic; the packaging mix is as follows: aluminium tubes represent 64.7%, those in plastic 24.8% and 10.5% are sachets in laminated material.

Secondary packaging, transport packaging and closures. Widening the analysis relating to packaging in the pharmaceutical field, we find that in 2023 carton cases alone reached 39,000 tonnes, while there were 20,500 tonnes of packaging for transport (corrugated cardboard boxes and pallets, both in wood and plastic). With regards to closures, 58.9% were in aluminium and 41.1% in plastic.

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