Recently there has been a lot of talk and plenty of confusion about generic drugs. What are they? Why are they different? Can you benefit from their use?
A generic drug is simply a branded drug that uses a different name. For example, acetaminophen is the generic version of the brand name drug Tylenol. Omeprazole is the generic form of Prilosec which is a brand name drug used for gastric reflux. Glucophage and Fortamet are the brand names for metformin which is prescribed for people with diabetes.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers generics to be "bioequivalent" to branded drugs, which means they contain the same active ingredients. You can think of them like your supermarket brands of foods you can also buy as a brand. So, for example, you can buy Kellogg's Rice Krispies, or you can buy the store brand. You can buy Green Giant canned or frozen vegetables, or you can buy the store brands.
And just like store brands of the foods you eat, generic drugs usually cost much less than their branded counterparts. Using them may be one way to lower health care costs.
Why do generic drugs cost less?
When a pharmaceutical company develops a new drug, it obtains a patent for that drug. The patent means that no one else can sell the exact same drug for a period of time, usually 17 years. That patent-protected drug is the branded drug, and when we pay for it, we are also paying for the research costs, the costs incurred in proving it is safe, the costs to market and transport the drug, and a premium if it is the only available drug for a certain symptom, disease or condition.
Once that patent-protected time has passed, any other company can sell a drug with the same ingredients as the branded one. That generic drug must be given a new name. Since the company that manufactures the generic didn’t incur the costs of the original research, testing or marketing, the cost is lower.
Not all branded drugs have a generic version. Most recently-developed drugs will still fall within the patent-protected time. Pharmaceutical companies will try to convince us that we need to stick to their brand name drug because that's how they make money from it. Even though you can get the same effect from the generic drug, they will try to convince you not to use the generic.
And, just like store brand cereals or frozen foods aren't exactly the same as the branded ones, just because the generic drug is bioequivalent doesn’t mean it’s exactly the same. The FDA insists that no two drugs can look exactly alike, so generics may contain inactive ingredients that differ from their branded counterparts. You can decide whether one is more effective for you or not, just like you can decide if the flavor of the store brands is just as good as the name brand.
The best way to be sure you are getting exactly the drug you need, branded or generic, is to consult with your doctor. When a drug is prescribed for you, ask if there is a generic equivalent. If there is, ask whether it is an option for you. You may get exactly the therapeutic help you need and save a lot of money, too.
If you are curious about the availability of generic versions of the drugs you currently take, the FDA maintains a reference called the Orange Book.
Link here to the FDA's Orange Book.
Reviewed July 14, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Alison Stanton