How to cut the cost of basic medicines

Generic drugs can save you from a nasty financial headache. David Prosser reports
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Presented with two identical products costing 39p and £2.09, which one would you buy? It's not a trick question: why on earth would you choose to spend five times more than necessary? Yet this is what thousands of people do every day when buying headache tablets in chemists' shops.

As the table (right) shows, Disprin tablets sell at £2.09 for a packet of 16 pills in leading chemists. But a packet of 16 aspirin pills costs only 39p from the same shops. The reason many people choose the former over the latter is that they don't realise the two products are the same.

Welcome to the confusing world of medicines, where the same basic product is on sale under a variety of different names, often at hugely different prices. In the over-the-counter market, where you get a choice of different medicines (unlike with prescriptions, see story, right), people naturally gravitate towards the brands they know, yet these drugs are often far more expensive.

In the drugs industry, the company that develops a particular medicine is entitled to sell it exclusively for a set period, typically 10 years or so. Once the patent expires, other pharmaceutical companies can start selling copies of the drug - at cheaper prices if they so choose.

With common medications such as painkillers, vitamins and allergy relief, many companies may sell the same drug. You'll probably know the biggest brand names, but they're unlikely to be the cheapest.

The key to getting the best deal is to identify the active ingredientthat actually achieves the effect you need. Nurofen, for example, is simply a well-known brand name for ibuprofen. Buy a generic version of ibuprofen and you'll save 20 per cent, or even more.

"Generics are developed when the sales of the branded products are reasonably high and medicine is purchased often," explains Claire Weaver, of the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, which promotes responsible healthcare. "They are labelled with the active ingredient and the quantity per tablet."

The drug will often be packaged so that consumers know what it's for, particularly if the active ingredient is not well known. The packet might say "hayfever relief", for example, but the active ingredient will also be prominently featured.

The same drugs may look or taste different. Copies of branded drugs are produced in different coloured or shaped pills or with different ingredients (to make the taste more palatable, say), but if the active ingredient is the same, you're buying the same medicine.

Geraldine Clark, of the National Pharmacy Association, says that while there should be no problem switching from branded medicines to generic drugs, it's worth checking with your pharmacist, particularly if you are concerned about allergies or side effects that might be produced by different non-active ingredients.

"We'd encourage people to ask pharmacists, who will be familiar with any differences between their range of generic and branded medicines," Clark says. "But there are big price differences and not everyone realises these are the same drugs."

Weaver adds: "A manufacturer of branded medicines has costs that the generic company doesn't: generic companies have no research costs, little or no marketing and advertising costs and much-reduced distribution costs."

This explains why they can undercut the big-brand names. In the table (right), the generic drugs are all at least 20 per cent cheaper than the well-known branded medicines, even though they should all produce the same benefits.

In some cases, the savings are more than 20 per cent (on aspirin compared to Disprin, for example). And this table is based on a sample of just four chemists - even better value can be found if you shop around.

Not all chemists sell generic versions of all the big-brand names, but it's always worth checking. The latter are legally required to list their active ingredient, so it should then be simple to check whether there are cheaper alternatives. Just remember to cross-reference the quantities to check you're comparing like with like, in terms of the number of pills and the amount of active ingredient. If in doubt, ask your pharmacist.

Martin Lewis, of, says there are big savings to be made in Savers shops and supermarkets. "The biggest saving is in switching to generic from branded products, regardless of where you shop," says Lewis. "But Tesco and Asda, especially, have steamrollered into the pharmaceutical world in the last couple of years, undercutting most of the high-street pharmacies."

As long as you're buying from British chemists, you will be protected by this country's pharmaceuticals regulations. "There are strict quality controls before a product licence is granted for brand-named or generic versions of medicines," says a spokesman for the patients group Patient UK. "This means that a generic or brand-name version of the same medicine will work the same and be equally as safe."

Additional reporting by Amira Rahman.

Save on prescription drugs, too...

The cost of a National Health Service prescription in England rose 15p to £6.65 last month (compared to £6.50 in Scotland and just £3 in Wales), but there are ways to keep your costs down.

* First, note that around 50 per cent of people are entitled to free prescriptions, so don't pay for essential medicines unless you have to. The list of people exempt from charges includes children, students, pregnant women, the over-60s and many adults on low incomes or benefits.

* Second, ask your pharmacist whether the drug you have been prescribed is available as an over-the-counter medicine - many are, and the cost might be lower. This is likely to be the case with commonly prescribed medicines, such as painkillers, allergy tablets and skin creams. A 20g tube of Canesten ointment, for example, costs just £3.79 in chemists, a saving of £2.86 on the flat-rate prescription charge.

* A doctor may be able to give you a bulk prescription, providing more medicine than is available in an over-the-counter packet. If in doubt, ask for advice: chemists such as Boots have a policy to tell you whether you'll be better off with your prescription or buying over the counter.

* Next, if you live close to the Welsh border, consider picking up your prescription there - the charge you pay depends on the location of the chemist, not the doctors' surgery where you were prescribed the drug.

* Finally, consider prepayment certificates, which can cut the cost of medicines for people who need regular prescriptions. There are two options: a four-month certificate costs £34.65, while a year-long certificate is priced at £95.30. The former will save you money if you need more than five prescriptions over the four months, while the latter is cost-effective for anyone who needs more than 14 items during a year.

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