The Price of Painkillers
DISCLAIMER: Since I mention some specific branded pharmaceutical products in this article, I want to make it very clear that I don’t intend to promote any particular product and have no conflict of interests to declare.
Last Saturday, the New Zealand Herald’s Consumer Affairs reporter Morgan Tait published a very good article about a topic I’ve come across before. Many painkiller products cost different amounts despite having exactly the same active ingredients, and for some reason this isn’t common knowledge. Here’s a link to her article: Expensive and cheap pain-relief pills use same ingredients
I first discovered this from watching a Consumer Advocacy TV show from Australia called The Checkout. It’s quite light-hearted in its approach to issues, which I admit I find a bit painful at times, but that’s just a matter of taste and the information in the show is pretty consistently good. Although its content is sometimes only relevant to an Australian audience, a lot of it is also relevant to New Zealanders and I’d highly recommend you watch it if you get the chance.
Their episode that deals with painkillers is season 1 episode 5. The main point, which is also made in Ms Tait’s recent article, is that many painkillers you can find in pharmacies and supermakets cost different amounts but have exactly the same active ingredients. The prime example given in both the article and the episode is Nurofen.
Nurofen is an ibuprofen-based painkiller made by the pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser. They sell a product range of “specific pain relief” products:
- Nurofen Migraine Pain
- Nurofen Tension Headache
- Nurofen Back Pain
- Nurofen Period Pain
(Before I go into any criticism of these products, I do want to note that the efficacy of these products is not something I mean to call into question. I only intend to examine issues associated with their advertising and sale.)
If you look at the Nurofen website, you’ll also see that they have a lot of marketing claiming that their products can target specific types or sources of pain. For example, here’s the Nurofen logo as it appears in the upper left corner of their New Zealand website:
As you can see, their slogan “Targeted relief from pain” is pretty prominently displayed. Other sections of the site, such as their “Nurofen Treatment Advisor” (which recommends Nurofen products based on what sort of pain you say you have) also imply that certain products are more applicable to certain types of pain than others. However, all of the products I listed above have exactly the same active ingredient: 342 mg ibuprofen lysine.
I hope I don’t need to explain that, as all products are taken in the same way (a “caplet”) and contain the same active ingredient, your body isn’t able to distinguish between them so they’re all going to act in exactly the same way. If you take a Nurofen “Nurofen Period Pain” caplet for your migraine pain, it will be just as effective as a “Nurofen Migraine Pain” caplet.
The obvious explanation for this is that having specific products makes it easier for consumers to understand that this product can help with their specific type of pain. It probably helps Reckitt Benckiser sell more products too, just quietly. However, I can definitely see how this could be confusing to consumers – I know I was surprised for this very reason when I found out the products were effectively identical – and if the products are available for different prices people might end up paying more than they need to for exactly the same product.
The price issue, of course, is not an issue if all the products cost the same. However, this isn’t always the case. After I first became aware of this in March this year, I had a look and found that Pharmacy Direct stocked these products for different prices:
- Nurofen Back Pain 24 Caplets$17.55 ($0.73 per pill)
- Nurofen Migraine Pain 24 Caplets$19.99 ($0.83 per pill)
- Nurofen Period Pain 24 Caplets$17.45 ($0.73 per pill)
- Nurofen Tension Headache 12 Caplets$10.70 ($0.89 per pill)
- Nurofen Migraine Pain 12 Caplets$9.00 ($0.75 per pill)
- Nurofen Period Pain 12 Caplets$10.70 ($0.89 per pill)
Of course it’s not particularly surprising that the 12 caplet packs are relatively more expensive than the 24 caplet packs, but the price differences between packs of the same size seems quite odd. I also find it very strange that it’d be cheaper to by two 12 caplet packs of Nurofen Migraine Pain than a single 24 caplet pack of the same product.
I emailed Pharmacy Direct on the 27th of March to ask about the price discrepancies. Their response was basically that yes, the products do all have exactly the same ingredient, and they thought the suppliers did that for marketing reasons. They told me that the difference in price was due to them selling more of some packs than others, so they can justify buying more of them from their supplier and getting a bulk discount that allows them to sell the products to consumers for a lower price. They also offered me the option to pay the lowest price for any of the products if I mentioned our conversation in the “notes” section when buying them online.
If you’re looking for a cheaper ibuprofen-based painkiller as an alternative to Nurofen, you can buy a 24 pack of Countdown’s “Homebrand” version (just one example, I’m sure there are others) for $2.99. That’s $0.12 per pill, compared with $0.73 per pill as the cheapest Nurofen branded option from Pharmacy Direct. Now if you check the packet you’ll see that Nurofen pills contain 342 mg of ibuprofen lysine, whereas this particular unbranded option contains 200 mg of ibuprofen per pill.
I’m by no means an expert on the differences between ibuprofen and ibuprofen lysine, but I’m under the impression that 342 mg ibuprofen lysine will have a faster onset than 200 mg ibuprofen but provide the same amount of pain relief. If anyone knows more please say so in the comments. If you look at a pack of Nurofen, you’ll see that they’re considered equivalent:
Other types of painkiller can suffer from similar problems. For example, a 20 pack of Panadol (500 mg paracetamol) from Countdown costs $4.19, but a 20 pack of their own equivalent “Home Brand” paracetamol (which also contains 500 mg paracetamol per pill) costs $2.19.
While these cheaper alternatives do often contain the same amount of the same active ingredient (or equivalent), they’d unlikely to be exactly the same. For example, they may use different “fillers” to make up the rest of the pill. If you’re concerned about the differences or want to know more, your GP or pharmacist should be able to give you some advice.
It can be worth looking for an unbranded version if you’re looking to save. So-called “generics” are typically made available after the patent on a drug ends, and other companies are able to start producing and selling it. They tend to be much less expensive, and are sometimes subsidised if you have a prescription, but are often also less well-known.