The Prescription Access Litigation blog’s resident Advice Columnist, Ask Pharmie, has been on hiatus for a while — but now he’s back! Ask Pharmie answers readers’ questions about the pharmaceutical industry, drug marketing, drug pricing, and the like. Send him your questions! (Keep in mind, he does not answer medical or treatment questions, or render medical advice.)

So, reaching into Ask Pharmie’s mailbag, here’s our latest question:

Question: I recently switched from a brand name drug to a generic version to save money. Although the generic works just as well, the pill is a different color and shape from the brand-name. This is confusing. Why don’t the generic pills look the same as the brand name pills?

Answer: Good question! After all, generic drugs are the same medicine as the brand-name – they have the same active ingredient, and the same effectiveness. So it stands to reason that the pill would look the same, right? Not necessarily.

When a brand-name drug first comes on the market, the manufacturer has a patent on the drug that prevents any other companies from making or selling that drug. However, when the patent expires or gets invalidated, generic drug companies can apply for FDA approval to sell identical generic versions of the drug.

Generic drugs are required to have the same active ingredient and to work the same as the brand name. But this does not also mean that generic drug companies can copy the appearance of brand name drugs. If the appearance, shape, name and/or color of the drug is trademarked, it cannot be copied. Trademarks are words, names and symbols used to identify goods from a particular manufacturer. Unlike patents, which last a maximum of 20 years, trademarks never expire. While many brand name drug companies have traditionally only trademarked the names of their drugs, there is a trend towards trademarking the appearance of the drug as well.

For example, Pfizer has trademarked both the name Viagra and the well-known blue diamond shape of the Viagra pill. AstraZeneca has trademarked not just the name Nexium, but also the phrase “Purple Pill” and the characteristic purple-with-yellow-stripes appearance of Nexium.

viagra pill nexium capsule

So why have drug companies started to trademark the appearance of their drugs? In the past several years, brand name drug companies have started to make the appearance of their pills part of their marketing campaigns. By making consumers associate a particular appearance of a pill with the medicine contained in the pill, the drug company builds what’s called a “brand identity.” This helps convince the consumer that the product is superior and builds what’s called “brand loyalty.”

Drug companies use this strategy to stand out from their competitors. They also use it to try to convince patients to keep paying for the more expensive brand-name version of the medicine when a generic version becomes available. They hope that the patient will equate the look of the pill with its effectiveness. A generic pill can look “drab” in comparison, to, say a colorful Nexium pill, with its bright purple and its yellow stripes. It is a testament to how effective drug company marketing has become that consumers even notice the color of their pills!

Unfortunately, this serves to confuse patients. For patients that take many medications, the shape and color of the pill can help them remember what it is and what it’s used for. If drug companies didn’t trademark the appearance of their pills, then generic drug companies could make their pills look the same as the brand-name. This would help patients remember what each of their medications is, and avoid potentially dangerous errors (such as taking a drug at the wrong time, taking too much of the drug, missing a dose, etc).

The main thing to remember is that the appearance of a drug has nothing to do with its effectiveness. By using the color and shape of a drug as a marketing tool, brand-name drug companies are trying to fool you into thinking that these things matter, and to trick you into using an expensive brand-name drug when a less expensive one (generic or a different brand-name drug in the same category) would work just as well.

One last thing to keep in mind: The same generic drug can be made by many different generic drug companies, and each of their pills may look different not just from the brand-name pill, but from each other. If your pharmacy changes which generic drug company it buys your medication from, or if you switch pharmacies, your pills might suddenly look different than they did the last time you filled your prescription. Don’t panic! This doesn’t mean that you got the wrong pills. But, if you are at all uncertain or concerned, talk to your pharmacist. Better safe than sorry.

Here’s links to the past Ask Pharmie columns:

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