Say you have a headache, a cold or a blocked nose and you are searching the aisles of your local supermarket or pharmacy. Your symptoms are not serious enough to seek Doctor’s advice, but you are looking for the remedy to your aliment, the quick-fix from an over-the-counter medicine, which do you pick?
Are you looking for the brand you know, the brand that has been marketed to you, with TV adverts and promises of ‘’quick action’’ or are you looking for the ‘generic’? The brand-less, plain box of the same active-ingredient drug, like ibuprofen or paracetamol. You may think that the difference between them is based on their chemical composition, the way they are made, but what if it was just the box, the packaging and of course, the price.
To some this may seem a ludicrous idea, yet in a market full of so many brands, all saying they offer the ‘fix’, is it the box with just the generic drug name that gives us the relief we seek? If so, does this mean pharmacists are scamming us by shifting us towards these expensive branded products when the cheaper, generic alternatives are as effective for us, and better for our pockets?
With the cheapest painkillers at 19p for ibuprofen and 25p for paracetamol (Aldi, 2015), and the most expensive being £7.39 for a combined ibuprofen and paracetamol pill pack (Boots, 2015), it is clearly apparent that sometimes the cost far outweighs the benefit. Especially, when the only benefit of this combined pill is that you don’t have to take 4 pills at once. This may seem like an isolated case, but even mid-range branded products are asking for at least £2 for the same quality and quantity of drug.
This extreme price difference is not supported by an increased higher quality product, instead it is just paying a premium for the same-active ingredient with a nicer looking box, sometimes an ‘additive’ (like caffeine) and a brand name. Interestingly, some old research in 1981 (by Branthwaite and Cooper), suggested that there’s an increased analgesic effect from branded products, an idea that you have more confidence in the product, so coupled with the active ingredient, has a sort of ‘placebo’ effect to enhance the effect of the product.
Nethertheless, many of us are turning towards the ‘generic’ types as the price is so much cheaper, they are as effective as the branded counterparts and our confidence in them has significantly increased. Recent studies have shown that just 26% of consumers buy the branded products, and only 9% of pharmacists actually buy them too. When prescribing drugs, the NHS opts for the generic drugs as often as possible, as they can be over 80% less, freeing up funds for other treatments.
So why should self-medication require a higher price tag? Maybe next time rather than grabbing for the over-priced, recognisable brand, you take a little longer to find the cheaper, generic alternative.