Are old drugs safer than new drugs? The answer might be “yes” and they are cheaper too!
Most people think newer is better, but according to a study published in Health Affairs that might not be the case for prescription drugs. In short, the new study shows that drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after enactment of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act of 1992 (PDUFA), a bill that led to more expeditious drug approvals funded by drug companies, were more likely to have safety problems than ones approved before PDUFA. These findings are not only relevant to drug safety, but also to drug savings. Older drugs are often sold as generics and, thus, will have much lower co-payments than new drugs. For those paying out-of-pocket, the cost of a generic is often 80% less than the brand.
The study analyzed 748 drug approvals between 1975 and 2009. The approvals were of new molecular entities not for generic versions of existing brand-name drugs. Before PDUFA the chances that safety issues would arise involving approved new drugs was 21.2%; after PDUFA it increased to 26.7%.
According to the lead author, “The FDA needs to make sure drugs are safe before they’re approved, not rush to judgment in order to meet artificial deadlines.” Not surprisingly, FDA and the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, take issue with the study. Their main points are that PDUFA helped speed up important drug approvals and get medications to patients faster and it improved the predictability of FDA’s system of drug approvals.
Regulations for marketing and manufacturing new drugs can save people and they can kill people. If the regulations are too rigid then patients won’t get needed medications fast enough. Or regulations can increase manufacturing costs resulting in unaffordable drug prices. If regulations are too weak then drugs will be less safe and effective. While in my opinion the study clearly has merit, PDUFA is helpful. Before its passage, drug approvals were lagging far behind other advanced economies in Europe.
Furthermore, the study does not show “causality,” meaning it does not prove that faster drug approvals after PDUFA led to less safer drugs. Nonetheless, it’s understandable that a drug with a long history of safe and effective use, accompanied by few side effects, is more trustworthy than a newly approved drug since the long term effects of the latter are unknown.
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