Labelling of Non-Prescription Drugs

The labelling of non-prescription drugs has really gotten out of control. I did a post a while back about the confusion regarding cough and cold products. During cough and cold season this became particularly frustrating for me. Someone would come to the pharmacy counter holding the exact same products (in terms of medicinal ingredients) and ask me which one is the best? The only thing that varied was their selection of brand names. There is so much confusion with the labelling of non-prescription drugs. Manufacturers are getting really sneaky with their marketing and product labelling. If you take a look at the pain relief section of any pharmacy you can see 10 different types of ibuprofen and another 10 different types of acetaminophen.

Examples of Labelling of Non-Presciption Drugs

I had a bit of down time at work the other day and I decided to grab a few over the counter products to compare packaging. All of them are the exact same chemical ingredient but with flashy and bold new packaging.

Labelling of non prescription drug products

Advil Packaging

When I refer people to the pain relief section to pick up some Advil or ibuprofen, they take one look at the shelf and come back with half a dozen boxes wondering which one is the best. My biggest complaint would have to be with the new packaging of Advil. The purple box is fairly new on the shelf and now advertises “Muscle & Joint” on the packaging. This was really unnecessary. So many people end up purchasing this because it looks new and they assume it is a completely different product. That’s why reading the fine print on the back, i.e., medicinal ingredients, is so important. To me, this is sneaky and shouldn’t be allowed. If they want to come out with new packaging they should be forced to remove their old packaging from their production line and the pharmacy shelves.

The only thing manufacturers are doing when it comes to labelling non-prescription drugs is creating confusion and taking advantage of individuals who cannot make informed decisions for themselves. People who are illiterate or have slight visual impairments that prevent them from reading fine print rely heavily on visuals in order to make decisions.

Another example:

Tylenol. Labelling of non-prescription drugs

Tylenol. Labelling of non-prescription drugs

Look at the Tylenol section and you’ll notice the same thing. There are many generic and brand versions of the exact same medicinal ingredient: acetaminophen. There are slight changes to the physical product, i.e., glossy coatings to help with swallowing, extended release tablets to decrease frequency of dosing and different shapes of tablets. To me, coming out with a new shape for a tablet isn’t accomplishing anything but more confusion. Having a completely different version of Tylenol makes people wonder if one is better than the other. Not everyone feels they can approach pharmacists to ask them questions about the products. Some are too shy, in a rush, or don’t really care to know the answer.

There are other categories of medications that I have the same problem with. I think just about anyone can come out with a new brand of sleep aid and use the same ingredient as is found in the brand name allergy medication Benadryl. The completely different branding and packaging of sleep aids is completely misleading.\

labelling of non-prescription drugs

Sleep Aids. Different brands of the same medicinal ingredient

The only differences here, as in the other cases, are physical changes of the drug. Quick dissolve, gel caps and tablets. There are no therapeutics benefits of having different types of tablets. They may mean you don’t need to have a sip of water to take the medication, but they will all work the same (assuming dose is the same). The medicinal ingredient is diphenhydramine. The same ingredient responsible for the sedating feeling of brand names Benadryl (anti-allergy) and Gravol (anti-nauseant). The labelling of these products have convinced people so well that they’re unique products, they often don’t believe me when I tell them they’re all the same. People even ask me, “Are you sure?”. Most often I tell them to save their money on these products and use their Benadryl they have at home.

Labelling Standards Need to Change

There are countless examples of how labelling of non-prescription drugs are causing much confusion when it comes to selection. It shouldn’t be this way. Especially when it’s something as important as medications. I understand the need for re-labelling and reinventing the look of other consumer products to increase sales and brand awareness. But, we should treat non-prescription drugs different than other products. Labelling of non-prescription products should be standardized in such a way as to avoid confusion and promote easier medication selection. Of course there are standards and guidelines in Canada for labelling over-the-counter products, but clearly they’re not doing anything to make it any easier for consumers to choose their own medications.

In the past, Canadian food labels have came under scrutiny for having misleading packaging. This misleading packaging is promoting their foods as healthy when they’re very far from that. Many things have changed when it comes to food packaging in this country. You’re seeing more labelling for products that are peanut-free, gluten free, low sugar, low fat, high fibre etc… There is even a Health Check system to make it easier to pick foods that are ‘healthy’. I bring all this up because I really hope that sometime in the near future people get serious about the labelling of non-prescription drugs. This is an issue that hasn’t had much attention yet and really should be the next-in-line.

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