New Prescription Drug Web Site Could Mislead Consumers

Published December 10, 2004

(Chicago, IL) On December 9, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, launched a new Web site,, purporting to “compare a variety of prescription drugs on price, effectiveness and safety to help consumers and their doctors identify the most effective and affordable medicines.”

Unfortunately, the Web site’s utility is marred by a pro-generics agenda and a bias against newer and more expensive drugs.

Statement by Joseph Bast, president of The Heartland Institute, publisher of Health Care News, and coauthor of Why We Spend Too Much on Health Care:

Consumers Union (CU) should be commended for helping to inform consumers about the choices they face when buying and using prescription drugs. 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 and more expensive drugs.

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 sides on everything from global warming and biotechnology to telephone regulation and Medicare reform. It is important to keep that bias in mind when using this 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.” (

CU’s advice to consumers, based on this superficial and largely false view of how the drug industry works, is to discount what manufacturers say make 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 heartburn, acid reflux, arthritis, and pain medications.

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 every medicine. 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 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.

Why, then, does CU so clearly tilt 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.

Another, perhaps better, reason for CU’s pro-generic bias may be the source of funding for its new Web site. According to the site, “The Engelberg Foundation provided a major two-year grant to fund the creation of the project, the development of the Drug Reports and a public outreach and communications effort to promote the use of the information.” The Engelberg Foundation was created by attorney Alfred Engelberg from money earned by suing drug companies in order to force them to allow generic versions of their drugs to be produced before their patents would have expired.

Consumers should use 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.

The Heartland Institute is a national nonprofit organization based in Chicago. Founded in 1984, its goal is to help build social movements in support of ideas that empower people. It is supported by approximately 1,500 donors and Members. No corporate donor gives more than 5 percent of its annual budget. For more information, call Nicholas Tyszka at 312/377-4000, or email him at [email protected].