The generic drugs industry makes headlines this month. That’s thanks to the investigations of journalist Katherine Eban. She is the author of Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom.
Generic drugs are long touted as a cost-savings to consumers. For the most part, they are. Yet, many physicians and pharmacists guarantee that they are “exactly the same as brand.” For the most part, they are not. (To learn how this might affect the ADHD population, you’ll find links at the end of this post to my other reports on this topic.)
Yes, many consumers benefit from generic versions of brand medications. For them, the differences between brand and generic make little difference in efficacy.
Please be assured that I do not want to unduly scare people who are taking generic medications.
But here’s the thing: Many people do not benefit from generic drugs. Moreover, they have no idea why when they did so well on the brand. They assume that something else is wrong. This has all become more complicated with the off-shoring of medication production.
“Bioequivalence”— The Small Print
Social media brims with rants against “Big Pharma.” My concerns, however, have long been with “Big Generic.”
Since 2009, I’ve reported here about the particular problems that generic medications can present for people with ADHD—and indeed all psychiatric conditions. (I’ve linked to a few posts below.)
These posts culminated a few years ago when two generics for Concerta resulted in many readers’ lives going off the rails. Most did not connect their problems to their new generic medication. At least not right away. Why would they? They’ve largely been told that “generic is exactly the same as brand.” Many made the connection only after they found my blog posts.
With psychiatric medications, the dosing can be everything; too much up or down can have little or even a bad effect. As I write in Consumer Alert: Three New Concerta Generics as Janssen/Actavis Deal Ends:
In the U.S., the FDA requires the “bioequivalence” for the generic product to be between 80% and 125% of the original product.
Yes, that’s roughly 20 percent up or down—a huge window of variance.
Even that number will not be constant; it might vary each time the prescription is filled because pharmacies often switch suppliers.
The FDA Responded—But Slew of Concerta Generics Continues
Dr. Stuppy and I urged our readers to file a complaint if they had experienced problems with their Concerta generics. We had barely finished celebrating Victory! Concerta Generics Downgraded when boom boom boom—three new generics for Concerta. Talk about a game of Whack-a-mole. Turns out, the Trump Administration’s new FDA chief pushed many generics through despite FDA scientists’ concerns about bioequivalency.
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Over the past decade, many insurance policies (including employer-sponsored) have pushed more and more consumers toward generics. This seemed to mushroom after CVS was allowed to purchase Aetna (New York and California held out but the red states had it.)
Pharmacy profit margins are often higher for generics than for brand. This might also be true for some medical insurance policies. Certain pharmacy chains have even balked at filling prescriptions for the Concerta’s “authorized generic” (the brand marketed as a generic). They claimed that it is unavailable when it is not.
Americans Need Generic Drugs, But Can They Trust Them?
Now back to journalist Katherine Eban’s book. She has written a comprehensive examination of the generic medication industry. Most American consumers rely upon generics for their medical conditions but most know very little. Her reports shocked even me. Specifically: 90% of generics are manufactured overseas in plants that hardly resemble the highly regulated U.S. plants.
Overseas manufacturing might not be a problem if the FDA were able to coordinate more reliable inspections. But, as Eban reports, many overseas companies “game” the system.
“Bottle of Lies” Book Excerpt:
Here is an excerpt from Eban’s op-ed in The New York Times: Americans Need Generic Drugs. But Can They Trust Them?
The F.D.A., which approved more than 1,000 new generic drug products last year, faces a vast challenge in safeguarding these medications. Nearly forty percent of all our generic drugs are made in India. Eighty percent of active ingredients for both our brand and generic drugs come from abroad, the majority from India and China. America makes almost none of its own antibiotics anymore.
Of course, overseas manufacturing can work perfectly well and the F.D.A. contends that it has a reliable review system for all approved drugs. “The F.D.A. inspects all brand-name and generic manufacturing facilities around the world which manufacture product for the U.S. market to confirm they meet F.D.A.’s requirements for manufacturing process,” it said recently.
My reporting on the generic drug industry over the last decade led me to four continents, and into the overseas plants where America’s generic drugs are made. Interviews with more than 240 people, including numerous whistle-blowers, helped expose what was going on behind the boardroom doors at generic-drug companies. Some companies have encouraged data fraud as the most profitable path to securing approvals from regulators, and have used deceit to hold the F.D.A.’s investigators at bay…
…The F.D.A. has defended this system as the best way to ease the complex logistics of getting visas and ensuring access to the plants. But the resulting inspections are largely staged,” say a number of F.D.A. staff members. With advance notice and low-cost labor, the plants can make anything look like anything. “You give them a weekend, they’ll put up a building,” as one F.D.A. investigator put it.
FDA Ramped Up Investigations: 2015-2017
Starting about 2015, the FDA was cracking down on plants in India, China, and elsewhere. This piece explains: As India, China drug industries mature, FDA scrutiny an overhang.
If this continued into 2018, I have found no evidence. But I’ve yet to finish Eban’s book.
ADHD Roller Coaster Archives: Posts about Generic Medications
Here is a sampling of my posts about generics from 2009 to today. Click here to view the entire medication archive