Shop like a pharmacist: Don't buy Advil

If you’re looking to save a few dollars — who isn’t, really? — here is some fail-safe advice: stop buying Advil.

Stop buying Tylenol, Aleve, Motrin or any other brand-name painkiller while you’re at it. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t buy any painkillers at all — just that you should pick up the generic version — the acetaminophen and ibuprofen and naproxen that your local drugstore chain markets for about one third of the price.

This is something that Tylenol sales data suggests a lot of us aren’t doing. Fewer than half of painkiller sales in the United States are for the generic, private label brands that pharmacy chains manufacture

CVS sells 100 Advil tablets for $9.99. It sells a bottle of 100 generic ibuprofen tablets for $4. They are, aside from their shape and color, the exact same pill. Each has 200 milligrams of ibuprofen, a compound discovered by a British scientist in 1961 and first used to treat arthritis. 

Pharmacists, whose whole job it is to know about drugs and how they work, have caught onto this. While regular shoppers choose brand-name painkillers 26 percent of the time, according to research published last year by Dutch economist Bart Bronnenberg, pharmacists pick brand-name products in 9 percent of their purchases.

Bronnenberg and his colleagues recently updated their research, to look at how doctors and pharmacists shop differently from the rest of us. They found that health professionals are significantly more likely to buy generic ibuprofen than the rest of us, as you can see in this graph of their results from Planet Money (this is the top of the graph, you can see the rest of it here. One surprising thing it shows is health professionals are more likely to buy brand-name Alka-Selzter than the rest of us, leading them to wonder if there’s something they know about that medication they’re not telling us.)

This research isn’t completely new; the first version of Bronnenberg’s paper came out last year and, even prior to that, generic painkillers have been on the shelves for decades. If they work the same, why don’t all of us switch?

Some of it might boil down to confusion. A lot of us aren’t totally sure what active ingredients are in the painkillers we buy. Bronnenberg’s paper has this graph, which shows that people who cannot name the active ingredients in off-the-shelf painkillers are the most likely to purchase brand-name products.

This makes sense: If you don’t know that ibuprofen and Advil are the same thing, you’re probably less likely to swap one bottle of pills out for the other.

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Shop like a pharmacist: Don't buy Advil
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