Costly drugs go generic and cheaper


April 05, 1994|By Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon | Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon,King Features Syndicate

Saving money in the pharmacy is about to become easier.

In the last decade, Americans have seen their drug bills soar as prescription-drug price increases far outstripped inflation. Sticker shock became a common drugstore ailment.

Now many pricey medicines are about to lose their patent protection. That could represent a huge savings for American consumers.

One of the most important products going "generic" this spring is Tagamet (cimetidine). This acid-suppressing medication revolutionized ulcer treatment and led to some of the most successful drugs in the pharmaceutical industry, including Zantac, Pepcid and Prilosec.

A month's worth of Tagamet can cost more than $70, while Zantac could run more than $80. But when generic cimetidine hits pharmacy shelves, the price should be about 30 percent lower.

We have already seen the kind of savings a generic product can offer. Naprosyn has long been one of the most popular prescription arthritis medications. A month's supply can cost more than $80. When its patent expired, most consumers were able to save $20 a month on generic naproxen.

Unfortunately, many physicians still don't get it. Up to one-fourth of the prescriptions written for naproxen specify Naprosyn even though the generic is made by the same company that sells the brand name.

Major pharmaceutical manufacturers have figured out a way to have their cake and eat it too. They realize that many physicians and patients have developed a loyalty to their brand-name products, even though they may be 30 or 40 percent more expensive. So they continue to market drugs such as Naprosyn, Tenormin and Cardizem at high prices. At the same time they reap profits by providing distributors with the identical drugs for resale as generics.

Sometimes the generic-drug company is a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical firm For example, Syntex sells Naprosyn, while its Hamilton Pharma affiliate sells naproxen. Marion Merrell Dow sells Cardizem, the highly successful brand-name blood-pressure pill. Its subsidiary, Blue Ridge Labs, markets the generic version of diltiazem.

Other generics include the sleeping pill Halcion (triazolam) and the anti-anxiety agent Xanax (alprazolam).

They are now supplied by Greenstone, a subsidiary of Upjohn.

People with allergies should soon be able to save money on Seldane, which will become available as terfenadine. The blood pressure medicine Capoten (captopril) will also go off patent next year.

If high prescription prices have been getting you down, check with your doctor. It's possible a less expensive medicine is available or will soon become available.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.

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