New Prescription Drug Web Site Could Mislead Consumers

Published February 1, 2005

A new Web site purporting to “help consumers and their doctors identify the most effective and affordable medicines” is marred by a pro-generics agenda and bias against newer and more expensive drugs.

Unfortunately, few visitors to the site will be aware of this bias, leading some of them to choose the wrong drugs for their medical conditions.

On December 9, Consumers Union (CU), publisher of Consumer Reports, launched a new Web site,, which provides information on the effectiveness, safety, and cost of many widely used prescription drugs. Creating such a Web site is a good idea. While many people lament the high and rising cost of health care, here is a nonprofit civic organization doing something about it, without calling for new laws or restricting consumer choices.

I also commend CU for promoting pill-splitting, a simple and safe way to cut drug costs by half or even more. (Of course, not all pills can or should be split. Consumers should consult with their doctors first.)

However, consumers should not rely on CU’s new Web site for objective information when choosing between generic drugs and newer or more expensive drugs.

Biased Against Business

Consumers Union may be best known for testing and ranking everything from toasters to Toyotas, but it is also one of the country’s largest and most vocal liberal advocacy groups. It takes the anti-industry and pro-regulation side on everything from global warming and biotechnology to telephone regulation and Medicare reform. It is important to keep that bias in mind when using the CU Web site.

On the subject of prescription drugs, CU believes drug company profits are excessive and blames “misleading” direct-to-consumer advertising. According to Earl Lui, an attorney for Consumers Union, “Big drug companies incessantly market their expensive, big name drugs to both consumers and doctors, but often existing, less expensive drugs are just as good as newer ones.” (See

CU’s advice to consumers, based on this superficial and largely false view of how the drug industry works, is to discount whatever manufacturers say makes their drugs unique or more effective than other drugs. By choosing the cheapest drugs, usually generics, CU says “consumers could save as much as $1,300 a year” on their cholesterol-reducing medicine alone, and similar amounts on medicine for heartburn, acid reflux, arthritis, and pain.

Generics Not Always Right

Generic drugs have a permanent and important role to play in the drug industry. Sometimes, and for some consumers, generic drugs may very well be “just as good as newer ones.” But often they are not, because patients respond differently to the same medicine, and a generic substitute is not available for newer drugs. Often some experimentation or trial and error is required before the best medicine is found.

CU knows this, which is why its Web site is filled with disclaimers saying not all patients respond to medicines the same way and patients should ask their doctors before choosing a drug recommended by CU.

Claiming drugs discovered more than a decade ago and commercialized four or five years ago are often “just as good as newer ones” has never been less true than it is today. The pace of discovery and medical progress in the pharmaceutical industry is breathtaking. New generations of drugs are emerging that more closely target the health status of individual patients. The new field of biotechnology is promising dramatic advances in health and longevity.

Generics Big Business Too

Yet CU clearly tilts toward generics. For example, it devotes most of its introductory essay–titled “Rx Information”–to defending generic drugs. One reason, mentioned above, is CU’s anti-corporate bias. But in this case, CU misses its target. The generic drug industry is now a multi-billion-dollar industry, too, and the two sectors of the drug industry are becoming indistinct as companies in both sectors diversify into each other’s markets.

Consumers can benefit from using this Web site to prepare for informed discussions with their doctors and pharmacists. But they should keep in mind and discount the sponsor’s bias toward generic drugs and against newer drugs.

Joseph Bast ([email protected]) is president of The Heartland Institute, publisher of Health Care News, and coauthor of Why We Spend Too Much on Health Care.