Generic vs. brand-name drugs: Is there a difference?


Fact Box

  • According to the FDA, approved generic medications can generally only be sold to the public once “patents and exclusivities protecting the brand-name version end.” 
  • Generic medications account for 90% of all prescriptions filled in the US. 
  • Brand-name drugs typically cost about 80%-85% more than their generic counterparts. 
  • A Statista survey from 2019 showed that the best-selling branded medication in America was Atorvastatin, a drug that reduces “bad” cholesterol and raises “good” cholesterol.

Owen (No)

The vast majority of people prefer brand-name medications over generic ones, but for no good reason. Despite being about 18 times more expensive in recent years, brand-name drugs are virtually the same as their generic counterparts. The FDA agrees, saying that both forms of a medication have the same active ingredient--as well as corresponding quality, dosage, strength, and administration route. Overall, when looking at a brand-name drug and its generic equivalent, the only differences are in the inactive ingredients and, of course, the price.

The price differential between the two kinds of medication is explained by what the brand-name companies must do to establish their product. Clinical trials, which are the tests for a specific drug that determine its safety and effectiveness, are costly. Retail prices, therefore, are higher to account for the money spent on this. On the other hand, generic drugs do not need to go through clinical trials or spend the money that goes along with them. All a generic medicine needs to do is prove that it has a similar effect as an established branded medication. Without spending money on the development and marketing of a drug, generics save the consumer money. 

Notably, however, the less rigorous approval process that generic drugs go through does not make them less effective or unsafe. In fact, they are just as safe as brand-name drugs--being heavily inspected by the FDA, from factory checks and ingredient tests to side-effect investigations and even how sturdy their containers are. There's simply no reason to pay extra money for brand-name medication.  

Kat (Yes)

The difference between generic and branded medication lies in the inactive ingredients. Due to copyright, generic drugs cannot have the same appearance as their branded counterparts, though they must have the same active ingredients. According to research at GoodRx, this is why generic and brand-name medications differ in their shape, color, packaging, flavorings, and other inactive ingredients. And WebMD states that due to the differences in inactive ingredients, such as 'how quickly the drug dissolves, is absorbed, cleared, and eliminated from the body,' it's nearly impossible for a generic drug to recreate the 'identical effect' of its branded equivalent.

Further, some people have adverse reactions to certain inactive ingredients, which can be a reason to prefer branded over generic, or vice versa. Although rare, allergic reactions to inactive ingredients usually manifest within an hour of consuming medication.

There are also certain medical conditions where brand-name medications have worked better for a considerable number of patients. According to GoodRx, people who take antiepileptic drugs, blood thinners, and lithium are advised to avoid switching between branded and generic medication because even tiny differences in the blood concentration of these medications can significantly affect the patient. 

While neither branded nor generic medication can be said to be more effective, or of a higher quality than the other there are differences in their composition that might make one a better fit for a specific person. One should absolutely exercise caution if trying to use them interchangeably.

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