Faced with rising health care costs and a recession, many people are looking for ways to cut back on their monthly medical bills. One way we can do this is by choosing generic over brand name drugs. But some have reservations about opting for the cheaper choice, assuming that more money means a better pill. Are they the same?
What Is a Generic?
A generic drug contains the exact same active ingredient as a brand name drug. The reason it’s cheaper is because the pharmaceutical patent on the name brand drug has expired and other companies are therefore able to manufacture it. A patent for a new drug lasts around twenty years; it protects the research, development, marketing, and promotion and means the company has the sole right to sell the drug. Once the patent is about to expire, however, other companies can apply to make and sell the generic version. They haven’t had to pay for the research or marketing, so their costs—and yours—are substantially lower.
Competition among generic makers can also keep the price low. Currently, about half of all prescriptions in the United States are filled with generic drugs.
Cheap Pills, Same Thrills
Because generics contain the same active ingredients as the brand name, they are bioequivalent, meaning they have the same pharmacological activity and the same risks and benefits of the brand name drug. The Food and Drug Administration requires that generics are the same in dosage, safety, purity, strength, route of administration, quality, and performance. In fact, many drug companies that make the brand name drug also have a hand in manufacturing the generic.
A recent review in the Journal of the American Medical Association proved the clinical equivalence of generic and brand name drugs by looking at those used in cardiovascular disease. Analyzing forty-seven studies, they concluded that there was no superiority of brand name drugs over generics.
Looks Aren’t Everything
Despite this, a substantial number of people and doctors question the interchangeability of generics for brand name. Part of this can be traced to appearances. Although generics contain the same active drug, they often look different in terms of shape, color, or taste. This is because the maker of the drug has trademarked the appearance and name of a product and generic makers can’t duplicate this, even though the active ingredient is copied. (Patents expire, trademarks don’t.)
Drug companies heavily market their product, so most people only know the brand name and look of a drug. Most people don’t know to ask for sildenafil citrate, but they do know to ask for Viagra. When AstraZeneca was faced with patent expiration on their heartburn drug, they launched one of the most expensive marketing campaigns in history based solely on the look of the brand name drug—the “little purple pill” (Nexium). Consequently, many patients and doctors chose Nexium (around $175 a month) rather than the over-the-counter equivalent, Prilosec (around $25 a month). Both are made by AstraZeneca.
At the Counter
Of course, generic drugs aren’t always available. Drugs that are new to the market may still be under patent protection and might be the only choice. But for many common illnesses, there are either generics or older drugs in the same class as the brand name that could be an option. If your doctor prescribes a brand name, your pharmacist may be able to recommend a generic.
According to Consumer Reports, on average, generic drugs cost about one-third what brand name drugs do. For the same active ingredient that will do the exact same thing, that’s a steal.