Branded, generic and identical medicines – how much should you pay?

jaynelawrenceby Professor Jayne Lawrence, RPS Chief Scientist

Increasingly the public are being encouraged by the Government to take greater responsibility for their own health. In particular, they are being prompted to manage any minor and self-limiting medical condition themselves, which may result in the purchase of an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine.

While it is well recognised that a generic version of a medicine is cheaper than the original branded product, the reasons behind a patient choosing the branded or generic version are complex – in addition to medicine cost, other factors such as advertising, brand loyalty, product packaging or a perception of higher quality can all play a part in the decision a patient makes when purchasing a medicine.

But, how accurate is the marketing information for an OTC product? Recently in Australia, the manufacturer of Nurofen was fined for marketing Nurofen products with claims that they targeted specific types of pain e.g. back pain, period pain, tension headache and migraine. While Nurofen products can be used effectively to treat these kinds of pain, they are not able to specifically target pain in one particular area. In June 2016 the UK Advertising Standards Authority concluded that a TV advert for Nurofen Joint and Back was misleading in implying that the product specifically target joint and back pain.

Unfortunately it is not just misleading advertising that the public have to be aware of. Some products, from the same manufacturer are either exactly the same or almost identical, but may be priced differently, depending on whether they are marketed at children or adults.  When this happens, the childrens’ medicines are generally more expensive. I’ve been working with BBC Radio 4’s PM programme to shed some light on this. Examples of this include throat lozenges and vapour chest rubs, aimed at adults and children.  Marketing targeted at children may result in the product being called a different name to make it clear that is suitable for children and/or altering packing to include photographs of babies or children, or else making the packaging more attractive to parents. However, information on the packaging on the ‘adult’ product also states that it is suitable for children.

Purchasers of OTC medicines must be especially vigilant therefore to ensure they are not overcharged for children’s medicines when there is actually an identical ‘adult’ version of the medicine, which is often cheaper. People needing medicines should always read the labels and information provided on the packet, and if they suspect that the products are identical or act in the same way, check with the pharmacist.

Pharmacists are a readily available and accessible source of expert advice and additional information on all medicines, including OTC products. We train for five years, focusing on medicines, their uses and interactions, and can provide quick and straightforward advice about the right medicine for your needs and your wallet.

Ultimately the medicine you buy in the end is, of course, your choice – and if you talk to your pharmacist first, you can be sure your choice will be one based on sound information and not just the marketing.

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