They’ve become household names: Celebrex, Lipitor, Pristiq, Toviaz. You’ve probably seen the ads on television, and strained to hear long and frightening lists of warnings about side effects.
Drugmakers shell out billions of dollars each year to target consumers with those ads ($4.3 billion in 2009) and even more for promotions aimed at doctors ($6.6 billion in 2009), according to IMS Health, an industry group that monitors drug sales and marketing.
The trouble is that the ads work. Our research shows about one of every five people who take a prescription medication said they’ve asked their doctor to prescribe a drug they’ve seen advertised; of those, 59 percent said the doctors complied, according to a survey in May 2010 by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. But what the ads won’t tell you is that those newer drugs are often no safer or more effective than older medications that cost a fraction of the price.
That’s where Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs comes in. We don’t test drugs the way we test cars or refrigerators; we use research from experts at the Drug Effectiveness Review Project, based at Oregon Health & Science University. The DERP analyzes hundreds of studies on a given class of drugs to treat a condition. Prices of brand-name drugs are provided by Wolters Kluwer Pharma Solutions.
CR Best Buy Drugs and the DERP are part of a movement called evidence-based medicine. The goal is to help doctors and patients base treatment decisions on independent and unbiased scientific evidence, not on a pitch from a drug sales rep.
Our free reports, available at www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org/BestBuyDrugs, cover 25 classes of drugs for more than 35 conditions, including allergies, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and muscle pain. The good news: The CR Best Buy picks for most of those chronic conditions could save you hundreds to thousands of dollars a year.
To earn a Best Buy designation, a drug must be at least as effective and safe as other medications in its class and less expensive. But if an analysis of studies shows that a brand-name drug is notably safer or works better than a lower-cost medicine, it will be deemed a CR Best Buy, regardless of its price.
Here’s even better news: Many of the CR Best Buys cited in this article cost just $4 for a 30-day supply (or $10 for a 90-day supply) at Kroger, Target, and Walmart.
Most of the CR Best Buy picks are generics. That might give you pause. Our own surveys from 2009 and 2010 found that more than 40 percent of people said they had concerns about generic drugs, fearing that they weren’t as safe or as effective as brand-name medications, had different side effects, or came under different federal standards.
To get approval from the Food and Drug Administration, a generic-drug maker must prove that its product contains the identical active ingredient as its brand-name counterpart and that the drug is “bioequivalent,” meaning that as much active ingredient enters and leaves the blood-stream as fast or as slowly. Generics that meet those criteria should have the same therapeutic effect as brand-name drugs.
The FDA regulates generics just as it does brand-name drugs and monitors them once they’re on the market. To date, the FDA has found no difference in the rate of adverse reactions between generic and brand-name drugs.
“Seventy percent of all prescriptions are for generic drugs,” says John Santa, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. “Generics look different from brands because of trademark issues, but they’re equivalent in efficacy and safety and can save up to 80 percent off the retail price.”