Are generic, brand-name drugs equivalent?

Like many Americans, Anne Steele suffered from nasal allergies. She tried multiple over-the-counter me-dications, but nothing seemed to help. After visiting her doctor, she grew hopeful that she could be relieved of her troublesome symptoms, but that hope turned out to be short-lived.

After being prescribed a generic version of Flonase, a prescription nasal spray, Steele noticed that, not only did the medication not work, but that it actually seemed to make her allergies worse.

“I talked to my doctor, who said that he was not surprised because the generic med was made in a different factory,” Steele said.

According to the Food and Drug Administration’s website, generic drugs account for approximately eight of every 10 prescriptions filled in the U.S.

But although government agencies and medical professionals assure their safety and effectiveness, generic medications may not always be exact equivalents of their brand-name counterparts.

“They use different filling agents, different coloring agents, and different binding agents,” said Marvin Friedman, a professor of pharmacology at Santa Monica College.

Friedman said that the government has measures in place to protect the safety of consumers of prescription drugs.

“It has to go through testing,” said Friedman, who explained that the federal government conducts regular “bioavailability/bioequivalence” checks on generic prescriptions.

“When a generic drug product is approved, it has met rigorous standards established by the FDA with respect to identity, strength, quality, purity, and potency,” according to the FDA. “However, some variability can and does occur during manufacturing, for both brand-name and generic drugs.”

Friedman explained that the required testing addresses this variability among medications.

“The absorption—that’s primarily what they’re being tested for because the chemical is going to be the same,” Friedman said. “The absorption can be slightly different from the brand-name.”

Tina C., a pharmacist at a West Los Angeles Rite-Aid who declined to provide her last name, said that most consumers have no issues when taking generic versions of medications, but that the variability of inactive ingredients could potentially pose problems.

“Some might be allergic to the inactive ingredients in a generic medication,” she said. “If that’s the case, they can go with the brand-name.”

The FDA is aware of this issue, noting that some people might experience negative side effects when switching from a brand-name to a generic, but the organization does assure consumers that the public would be informed should a serious issue with a medication arise.

One such instance occurred recently when the FDA issued a recall for a generic version of the antidepressant Wellbutrin XL.

“It was a sustained-release product, and they later found that the sustained release wasn’t up to par in terms of the release and being equivalent to the brand name,” Friedman said.

Friedman assured that this type of situation does not happen often, and that consumers do have other options.

“Periodically, we do get some patients that say a generic just isn’t working,” Friedman said. “It’s very rare, but you do see it once in a while.”

Some may wonder how generic drugs can have the same ingredients and potency as brand-name medications, but with a much lower price tag.

“Cheaper does not mean lower quality,” according to the FDA’s website.

Friedman explained that generic drug companies do not have to put as much money into the product as creators of the medication do.

“Drug companies patent every chemical that they make,” Friedman said. “The generic companies don’t have that at stake. They don’t have to do human testing other than the bioavailability/bioequivalence. They don’t have as much involved in terms of research investments, so they don’t really have to recoup that much. Also, they don’t have to recoup anything on their failure rates.”

According to Friedman, consumers should not worry about the differences between generics and brand-name medications.

“There’s very little in terms of seeing something as being problematic with a generic,” he said.