This article about generic drugs is based on information from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Whether you have prescription drug coverage or not, if you use generic drugs when appropriate for your health condition you can save money – often more than 50% less than the brand name drug. But, are generic drugs safe? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), generic medications are as safe and effective as the brand name equivalent.
What is a brand name drug?
A brand name medication can only be produced and sold by the company that holds the patent for the drug. Brand name drugs may be available by prescription or over-the-counter. For example:
- Valsartan, a medication used to treat high blood pressure, is sold by prescription only by Novartis Pharmaceuticals under the brand name Diovan.
- Loratadine, a medication used to treat allergies, is sold over the counter by Schering-Plough HealthCare Products under the brand name Claritin.
What are generic medications?
When the patent of a brand name medication expires, a generic version of the drug can be produced and sold. A generic version of a drug must use the same active ingredient(s) as the brand name drug and it must meet the same quality and safety standards. Additionally, the FDA requires that a generic drug be the same as a brand name drug in:
- the way it works
- the way it is taken
- the way it should be used
- the health conditions that it treats
All generic drugs must be reviewed and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they can be prescribed or sold over-the-counter.
Are my generic medications as safe and effective as brand name medications?
According to the FDA, all drugs, including brand name drugs and generic drugs, must work well and be safe. Generic drugs use the same active ingredients as their brand name counterparts and, therefore, have the same risks and benefits.
Many people are concerned about the quality of generic drugs. To assure quality, safety, and effectiveness, the FDA puts all generic drugs through a thorough review process including a review of scientific information about the generic drug's ingredients and performance. Moreover, the FDA requires that a generic drug manufacturing plants meets the same high standards as a plant for a brand name drug. To ensure compliance with this rule, the FDA conducts approximately 3,500 on-site inspections each year.
About half of all generic drugs are made by brand name companies. They may make copies of their own medications or another other company’s brand name drugs and then sell them without the brand name.
If my generic drug has the same active ingredient as the brand name version, why does it look different?
Generic drugs are not allowed to look exactly like any other drugs being sold due to U.S. trademark laws. Although the generic drug must have the same active ingredient as the brand name drug, the color, flavor, additional inactive ingredients, and shape of the medication may be different.
Does every brand name drug have a generic drug?
Brand name medications typically are given patent protection for approximately 17 years. This provides protection for the pharmaceutical company that paid for the research, development, and marketing expenses of the new drug. The patent does not allow any other company to make and sell the drug. However, when the patent expires, other pharmaceutical companies, once approved by the FDA, can start making and selling the generic version of the drug.
Because of the patent process, medications that have been on the market for less than 17 years do not have a generic equivalent being sold. However, your doctor may prescribe a similar medication to treat your condition that does have an available generic equivalent. For example, if you are taking Lipitor (Atorvastatin), which is still on patent protection, for high cholesterol, your doctor can switch you to simvastatin, the generic version of Zocor.
Why are generic drugs less expensive than brand name drugs?
According to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, it takes more than seven years to bring a new drug to market and costs more than $800 million. Since generic drug companies do not have to develop a medication from scratch, it costs significantly less to bring the drug to the market.
Once a generic medication is approved, several companies may produce and sell the drug. This competition helps lower prices. In addition, many generic drugs are well-established, frequently used medications that do not need to bear the costs of advertising. Generic drugs often cost 30% to 50% less than brand name drugs.
Why are some healthcare providers reluctant to recommend or prescribe generic medications?
Despite the fact that the active ingredient in a generic medication is the same as in the brand name counterpart, small differences could effect how the generic medication works in your body. This may be due to how the generic medication is produced or the type and amount of inactive materials present in the medication. For some people, these slight differences may cause the drug to be less effective or lead to side effects.
An example of the controversy about generic versus brand name medication is the drug levothyroxine, used to treat people with a low thyroid condition (hypothyroidism). Since many people with low thyroid are sensitive to very small changes in the dose of their medication, switching between brand name and generic versions of levothyroxine can cause symptoms of too little thyroid medication or side effects from too much medication.
Before switching to a generic drug, speak with your doctor and make sure that you are both comfortable with the change.
Resources from the FDA
- Generic Drugs – Access to consumer-focused information about generic drugs
- Orange Book of Generic Equivalents – An online resource for information about all available generic drugs approved by the FDA
- Monthly Generic Drug Approvals List – A list of recently approved generic drugs, first-time generics, and tentative approvals