Clearing Confusion Over Generics

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 23, 1999 (Washington) -- Many consumers are confused about the difference between brand-name drugs and generic drugs.

Are generic drugs of the same quality as brand-name drugs?

Are there any health risks associated with generic drugs?

Are the savings from taking generic drugs really worth it?

Put simply, consumers can generally take generic drugs with confidence -- but there are times when switching from a brand name to a generic might pose medical issues. A wise consumer must be alert and knowledgeable and must ask questions of his or her pharmacist and physician.

What is a generic? Every single drug product has a generic name. Some are easily recognized, like aspirin, acetaminophen, or penicillin. You might not recognize the generic names of other well-known drugs: diazepam, loratadine, ranitidine, propranalol, or glipizide.

The brand name is a trade name used by certain companies to sell the drug. For example, aspirin is sold as many brand names -- Bayer, Excedrin, and Anacin. Acetaminophen is sold as Tylenol, but also is available as Anacin-AF and other brand names. Diazepam is sold as Valium. Loratadine is Claritin. Ranitidine is Zantac. Propranolol is Inderal. And glipizide is Glucotrol.

The generic-name concept is used for other types of products as well. For example, colas may be sold under many brand names: Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Diet-Rite Cola, etc. Certain stores may also sell a generic version (labeled simply as "cola").

Products sold under their generic names are generally less expensive than products sold under a brand name. The reason is that companies generally do not advertise or spend money on marketing of generic products. Companies that sell brand-name products must charge more to offset their advertising and marketing costs. In the case of prescription drugs, a higher cost for brand names also helps pay for the research conducted on the drug.

Because they are less expensive to produce, you pay less for a generic product. If you have a co-pay with your prescription drug insurance plan, you may pay $5 if the prescription is filled with a generic drugs and $10 if it is filled with a brand-name drug. Most insurance plans encourage the use of generics because it saves them money.

While all drugs have generic names, some drugs do not have a separate generic version. The reason is that innovative drugs are protected by patents. This means that only the company that developed the drug and obtained the patent can sell it for a period of time. Once the patent expires, then any company can seek FDA approval to market the drug.

Virtually all pharmaceutical experts agree that drugs sold under a generic name are equivalent to brand-name drugs. The reason for this confidence is that all drugs, whether sold under a brand name or only its generic name, must be approved by the FDA. The FDA's Commissioner, Jane Henney, MD, recently published a study in TheJournal of the American Medical Association that confirmed the agency's confidence in generic drugs.

Even though consumers can have confidence in all drugs, whether sold under their generic name or with a brand name as well, there are times when cost-saving alone is not the best strategy. If you are taking the brand-name version of a particular drug and are doing well on it, then it makes sense to stay with that product. While the generic version may be safe and effective, there is no point in switching from one version of a drug to another.

Pharmacists usually can provide good guidance on generic vs. brand-name drugs. They are an underused resource but should be able to answer any questions you have.

Bottom line: you can have confidence in any drug on the market. It carries the FDA's approval. But if the drug you are taking works for you, be cautious in switching from one manufacturer's version to another's. And if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist.