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Let’s face it: drugs aren’t cheap. If you don’t pay a hefty price for medications, you’ve got a loved one who does. Even those of us who don’t take prescription drugs but appreciate some over-the-counter relief every now and then have run into The Question: Brand or Generic?

I’m guessing your thought process goes something like this: You’re scanning the pharmacy shelves and finally find what you’re looking for. You see two drugs side-by-side. The boxes look similar, but they aren’t exactly the same. One is the brand-name version and costs maybe $16. The other is a generic option and only costs about $6. You read the box and notice they claim to do the same thing.

Then you wonder… what’s the difference?

Could a no-name drug that claims to produce the same results at a fraction of the cost of the brand-name drug actually be as good? You’d love to save money, but you also want the medication to work. You hesitate because “you get what you pay for” and you’re sick, so you don’t have time to play around.

Brand-name, it is.

Chances are some, if not all, of these thoughts have run through your mind at some point. As a pharmacist, I get these questions ALL the time. And understandably so. When you put chemicals into your body, expecting a positive effect, you want to be confident that they are safe and that they work.

Since this is a question that almost everyone encounters at some point, Your Friendly Public Health Pharmacist is going to set the record straight on brand-name and generic drugs.

Generics are great!!

That’s right. There’s the answer to your question. Now if you’d like to know why they are great, keep reading.

What are Brand-Name and Generic Drugs?

Simply put, brand-name drugs are the sole property of the pharmaceutical company that first discovered/developed the drug. The pharma company owns a patent on that drug. Until that patent expires, it is the only company allowed to develop and sell the drug.

The Krazy Coupon Lady

Imagine this: you’re going to Walmart for peanut butter. You could get Jif® or you could go with the Walmart, no-name option. Jif® = brand-name. Walmart, no-name = generic.

Either way, you’re still leaving with peanut butter.

So, let’s translate that to medications.

Pretend your doctor prescribed you a popular water pill called Lasix. Lasix is the brand-name of the drug. When you go to pick up your water pill from the pharmacy, your pharmacist may give you the brand-name drug Lasix or a generic drug, which will simply read “furosemide.” Either way, you’re still leaving with the water pill you came for.

How are Generic Drugs the Same as Brand-Name Drugs?

Your doctor and pharmacist have told you that the generic drug is the same as the brand-name drug, but have they explained how?

FDA

Let’s go back to our water pill example. We’ve got furosemide-the-generic and furosemide-under-the-brand-name-Lasix. In this example, furosemide is what we call the active ingredient. Basically, it’s the ingredient that makes the drug work. In most cases, the generic drug name = the name of the active ingredient. (That’s why sometimes the generic drug name is a little hard to pronounce.)

Now, think of the generic drug as a copy of the brand-name drug. By law, generic drugs MUST have the same active ingredient as the brand-name drug. The following must also be the same:

  • How much drug is in one dose
  • What form the drug is in (for example, a pill or suspension)
  • How you take the drug (for example, by mouth or by IV injection)

Most importantly, generic drug makers must prove that the generic drug works just as well and is just as safe as the brand-name product.

How are Generic Drugs Different from Brand-Name Drugs?

Even though generic drugs are copies of the brand-name drug, they do not have to be exact copies.

We learned that the active ingredient determines how the drug works. Well, medications have inactive ingredients, too.

Inactive ingredients may give the drug a specific color, taste, or shape. Generic drugs may have different inactive ingredients than the brand-name drug. Even though these inactive ingredients do not have to be the same, they do have to be considered safe.

Remember when we talked about the generic drug working just as well as the brand-name drug? Well FDA allows a little wiggle room in their definition of “just as well” – up to 20% wiggle room, to be exact. This is where some people get uncomfortable. They believe 20% is too wide of a range. In reality though, there is a difference of about 3% between generic and brand-name drugs, on average.

Why Do Generic Drugs Cost So Much Less?

FDA

According to the FDA, “…[T]he cost of a generic drug is 80 to 85 percent lower than the brand-name product.” Would you rather pay $100 for a name when you could pay $20 for the same drug?

Personally, I’d prefer not to give pharma companies all my hard-earned cash. I’ll take the $20 option, please.

Why do the brand-name drugs cost so much more you ask?

To be fair, it takes a really long time for a pharmaceutical company to get a drug approved by the FDA. A really long time and a whole lot of money. They have to pay to research the drug, make the drug, test the drug, market the drug, research the drug some more, etc. For this reason, FDA gives the pharma company a decade, plus or minus a few years, during which no one else can make or sell this drug (patent protection). During this time, the drug maker can charge high prices to recoup the money they invested and make a profit because there’s no competition. This is why brand-name drugs with no available generics are so expensive.

At the end of the patent protection period, generic drugs can hit the market. (That is GREAT news for you!) Generic drug makers do not have the same expenses as the pharma company that originally made the drug. Therefore, they can still make a profit without charging extremely high prices.

Once a generic drug is available, the pharma company no longer has a monopoly on the drug. Instead, the generic drug makers create competition, which results in lower prices for you.

Why Do Some People Say They Can’t Take Generics?

It is possible that a person does not tolerate one of the inactive ingredients in a drug well. If this inactive ingredient is found in the generic product but not in the brand-name product, they may prefer the brand-name drug.

There are also certain high risk drugs where you should stick with either the brand or the generic and not flip-flop back and forth. The common blood thinner Coumadin® (warfarin) is an example.

Bottom Line

Trust your pharmacist. Trust your physician.

Generic drugs work the same way the brand-name drugs do. And they are much more kind to your pockets.

If you have a negative reaction to any drug – brand or generic – let your doctor know right away.

Thanks for joining! As always, feel free to leave comments/questions.

– YFPHP

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