Originally created 05/15/98

Consumers save with switch to generic



An independent research organization recently found U.S. consumers saved $300 million in 1997 by switching from name-brand pain relievers to generics.

Laveda Johnson, however, was not one of those consumers.

The Augusta resident buys Tylenol exclusively, even though she could purchase its generic equivalent for about half the price.

"I guess I tend to think certain brands work better. I don't know," Ms. Johnson said, looking at the rows of acetaminophen on the shelf of an Eckerd drugstore. "It's probably all the same thing."

The study, by Information Resources, was reported in the May issue of Kiplinger's Personal Finance Adviser.

Although some consumers consider generic brands inferior, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that generic drugs -- over-the-counter and prescription -- be proven "therapeutically equivalent," meaning as safe and effective as the name-brand original.

So aside from the occasional difference in consistency and taste, there are virtually no differences between name-brand drugs and their copycats, medical experts and pharmacists say.

"The only difference is in their heads," said Clarence Jackson, a pharmacist for Maxwell House Pharmacy in Augusta. "It's the people who can least afford the name-brand drugs that are brainwashed by their advertisements."

Off-brand drugs are cheaper, because their manufacturers do not conduct years of research, development and testing. Generic drug companies simply take clinically proven products whose patents have expired and remanufacture them, cutting costs by 50 percent on average.

At Mr. Jackson's pharmacy, for example, a 28-tablet package of Capozide -- a name-brand blood pressure and diuretic medication developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb -- retails for $28.89; its generic counterpart sells for $14.95.

Most, but not all, drugs come in generic form. For example, Valium is the brand name for an anti-anxiety drug generically known as diazepam, just as Rogaine is the brand name for the baldness treatment drug minoxidil.

The number of generics has increased sharply since Congress eased restrictions in 1984, making it easier to produce drugs after patent expiration.

Since then, several top-selling drugs, most recently Glaxo Pharmaceuticals' anti-ulcer drug Zantac, have lost their market exclusivity. Each year an average of 10 name-brand drugs lose patent protection while 250 new generic drugs are approved for sale by the FDA.

"People are buying more of them because there are more of them out there," said Earl G. Wright, a pharmacist with Surrey Center Pharmacy. "My theory is to try to provide the customer who walks in with both options, but that is sometimes overridden by the insurance companies."

Augusta resident Elaine Rabideau insists on her name-brand diuretic pills even though they are not covered by her health insurance. She said she doesn't mind paying out of pocket, because the name brand pills are easier to break in half than the generics.

Experts say consumers should consult their doctors before switching from a name-brand prescription medication to a generic drug.

As for over-the-counter medications, experts advise consulting your pharmacist for a list of high-quality generic brands.