NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Nonprescription Drugs Save Americans $30 Billion per Year

September 16, 2003

America is experiencing a tidal wave of consumer interest in self-care and self-medicating with nonprescription drugs. Nonprescription drugs are available through 65,000 pharmacies and thousands of other retail outlets. These drugs, sold over the counter (OTC), are held to the same Food & Drug Administration standards of drug effectiveness and safety as prescription drugs.

More than 1,000 OTC products now contain active ingredients that were formerly prescription-only. And, consumers are being empowered with more and better health information:

  • Approximately 73 percent of consumers prefer to treat themselves with OTC medication.
  • The average cost of an OTC drug purchase is approximately $7 compared with the average cost of $19.82 for a generic prescription drug and $74.90 for a brand-name prescription drug.
  • OTC drugs actually reduce health-care costs by more than $30 billion per year -- thus the $32 billion annual expenditure on OTC drugs roughly pays for itself by reducing other health care spending.
  • U.S. consumers purchase 5 billion OTC medications each year.
  • Of 3.8 billion health problems treated annually in the United States, 2.2 billion (58 percent) are treated with one or more OTC medications.
  • Forty percent of the U.S. population consume at least one OTC drug in any given 48-hour period.
  • America's elderly population (13 percent of the U.S. population) consumes 33 percent of all OTC medication sold.

Nonprescription (OTC) drugs are used to manage or assist in the management of more than 450 medical conditions, including headache, constipation, diarrhea, athlete's foot, sunburn, head lice, fever, acne, PMS and motion sickness.

Source: Tim R. Covington "OTC drug therapy is an undervalued resource," Birmingham Business Journal, July 7, 2003.

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