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Many of us routinely use generic versions of brand name medications. Sometimes, we do this to save ourselves a few dollars and sometimes, our insurance providers give us little choice.

According to the FDA, generic medications are merely copies of brand name drugs. They are released after a brand name drug’s patent (or exclusive right to the product) has expired. The generic medication looks different from the brand name (in order to protect the brand’s copyright), but it has the exact same dose, and is supposed to have the same risks as the original drug. They may have different inactive ingredients, but the active ingredients that make the drug effective are the exact same as the brand name medication. In fact, the generic drug may be made by the same company that manufacturers the brand name medication. The FDA estimates that 50% of generic drug production occurs in the same plants used to manufacture the brand name drugs (Office of Generic Drugs, FDA, 2009).

Generic medications are thought of as cheaper versions of the brand name drug. So what are the risks of choosing to take a generic medication?

First, those inactive ingredients may affect you differently. For example, if you switch from a brand name medication to a generic version that uses lactose or milk sugar as an inactive ingredient (a commonly used filler) and you are lactose intolerant, you may begin to experience stomach upset without realizing the cause. You should carefully monitor any new symptoms you experience after switching to a generic brand and discuss them with your doctor. It may be necessary to return to the brand name or switch to a different generic formula.

A far more serious consequence is the effect using a generic version medication may have on your legal rights. Last month, the Supreme Court, decided the case of Pliva v. Mensing, a case which sought to determine the state law duties of generic medication manufacturers. The Court held that because generic manufacturers are required by federal law to have the exact same warning label as their brand name counterpart, generic manufacturers are not subject to “failure to warn” claims under state laws. Essentially, if a consumer took a generic medication, the manufacturer is not liable for any undisclosed side effect that they may have experienced. In some situations, depending on the way state legislatures react to the Supreme Court’s decision, it may still be possible to seek a remedy from the brand name manufacturer for a an injury caused by the use of a generic version. But only time will tell if it may one day mean that no one is responsible for a consumer’s injury – simply because they took a generic vs. a brand name medication.

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