In Western society, cost has become synonymous with quality. Consumers are willing to shell out excessive amounts of money to get what they perceive is a higher quality product. The stylish European automobile, the classy handbag, designer denim and even the most advertised brand of soda will command multiple times more than their low-end counterparts, all in the name of quality. But, should the same assumption apply to pharmaceuticals?
To answer this question, first, it is necessary to know the difference between a brand name drug and its generic version.
A brand name drug (for example, Lipitor) is one that is manufactured by the company that originally created the product. A generic drug (for example, Novo-atorvastatin) is one that is manufactured to match the original product. Both drugs have the same chemical name: “atorvastatin”, but one is a “copy” of the original, so they have different trade names.
Unlike the store brand version of your favourite soda, a generic medication must match the brand name medication in almost every way. The Canadian and U.S. Governments require that brand and generic match each other in at least two very important characteristics. They must have the same strength of the active drug contained within (for example, atorvastatin 40 milligrams); and just as importantly, the brand name drug and the generic drug must act identically within your body. This is called “bioequivalence”.
For this reason, if there was any difference between the generic medication and the brand name medication, the generic would not have been approved for use. The only real difference is how the products look (different colour, shape) and how much they cost.
So, why is it that generic medications are usually much less expensive than their brand name counterparts? This is because the brand name manufacturer has spent almost 1 billion dollars, in most cases, to develop and produce the medication. It is extremely expensive to create a unique molecule and research its effects in animals and humans. This is a cost that the generic manufacturer usually doesn’t have to deal with. So, its product is much less expensive.
But, how can this be fair? The generic manufacturer must always have the advantage in this seemingly parasitic relationship. Well, not exactly. This is because when a unique drug is produced, the brand name manufacturer files for a patent that protects it from competition from other manufacturers. However, this patent eventually expires, and this is when generic companies jump in for “the kill”. This is why new drugs will not have generic counterparts for a number of years, and so are more expensive in their youth.
In summary, if you need to make a choice between a brand and a generic medication, and cost is a factor (when is it not!), save yourself some money and go generic.
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Brad Langford, BScPhm, RPh, ACPR, is a Pharmacist in Toronto, Canada. http://www.AskYourPharmacist.ca.