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Does Higher Price Mean Better Quality?

No matter how hard I try, I always seem to get sick in February. Maybe it’s because this frigid month also overlaps with midterm and flu season, but either way, last week I found myself entering the closest drugstore in hopes of curing my cough, stuffy nose, headache, etc. (I’ll spare you the whole list of my symptoms). Although I typically just grab the Extra Strength Tylenol Cold & Sinus package without thinking twice, this time I decided to scan my options. I was overwhelmed by the different brands that all claimed to do the same thing at different price points. Then, a question popped into my head: what is the real difference between brand names and generic names, and why is there variation when it comes to their prices?

According to the NHS (National Health Service), a brand name is created by the pharmaceutical company that made the medicine, whereas a generic name is the name of the active ingredient in the medicine. For example, Advil is one of the brand name versions of ibuprofen, which is the drug’s generic name. This issue touches on an age-old question: does higher price mean better quality? In this context, probably not. Health Canada actually requires that generic drugs be as safe and effective as brand-name drugs.

In fact, generic drugs are only cheaper because the manufacturers do not have expenses associated with developing and marketing their version of the drug. When a brand name company brings a new drug to the market, the firm has to spend substantial money on the research, development, marketing and promotion of the drug. Generic drugs are created as a copy of the brand name drug, and so they don’t have the same upfront expenses. In reality, the only main difference between the two is the packaging and the price. Trademark laws in the United States do not allow the generic drugs to look exactly like the brand-name preparation, but the active ingredients must be the same, ensuring that both have the same medicinal effects. Because of this competition, brand name drugs will often use flashy colours and convincing buzzwords to attract the consumer.

As a result of the high cost of brand name medicine, some people may skip doses or not take a drug at all because they just can’t afford it. In this way, generics may be a clear winner. I was shocked to find out that generic drugs have saved the U.S. healthcare system $1.67 trillion in the last decade. Also, while generic medicine accounts for ~89% of prescriptions dispensed in the U.S., they only account for ~26% of total drug costs. For a Canadian over-the-counter example, a package of Tylenol Sinus with 40 capsules costs $18.49, whereas 40 capsules of Life (the generic brand of Pharmaprix) sinus medication costs $15.49. Both packages have the same active ingredients and cure the same symptoms, so clearly the marketing departments of Advil, Tylenol and NyQuil are doing a great job!

Okay, we’ve basically established that the bulk of research out there shows that purchasing generic medication not only saves you money, but also provides you with a medication that is just as effective as the original (in most cases). But there are certainly situations where you may want to spend a few extra dollars for the brand name. For example, when I’m going grocery shopping, I’ll always opt for Québon coffee cream, which is $3.59, as opposed to the no name option, which is usually $1.99. This is just a personal preference because I love the taste of Québon and don’t mind spending a little extra to make sure I enjoy my coffee in the morning. For others though, it might taste exactly the same, and they’d rather save that money.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to preference. There are certain cases where lower price has been proven not compromise quality, such as in the pharmaceutical industry. Either way, it never hurts to do some research to see where you can save a few extra dollars next time you visit a pharmacy or grocery store. That’s it for now, and remember to get enough sleep, wash your hands and stay healthy!