LIFESTYLE

How Checking The 'PL Number' On Medicine Packets Can Reveal If You're Being Ripped Off

Same drug, different packaging.

18/05/2017 10:03 | Updated 18 May 2017

Next time you’re buying medication, be sure to check out the product licence number (PL number) on the packet.

A postman’s Facebook status has gone viral after he pointed out that two products will contain the same ingredients if they have the same PL number, but they won’t always be sold at the same price.

Rob Lloyd shared a photo of two packets of tablets after he heard money saving expert Martin Lewis speaking about the topic on TV.

“Looked for myself in Asda, the pictured tablets are Sudafed Cold & Flu and Asda’s own Cold & Flu, both with the same PL number (PL12063/0073) so both made in the same factory but £3 difference in price. Goes to show how we are being ripped off,” he said.

More than 58,000 people have shared his status, with many commenting to share their outrage with the pharmaceutical industry.

A medication is given a PL number by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) when it is licensed to be marketed in the UK. However, a MHRA spokesperson told HuffPost UK the body does not control the prices these medications are sold at.

An article about the topic on moneysavingexpert.com - the website created by Martin Lewis - says PL numbers can be a giveaway when you’re looking for cheap medication. 

“The pharmaceutical industry’s full of genuine wizards – both those who make the drugs that help and the marketeers who use a raft of tricks to persuade us there’s hidden magic in their brands. Drug companies spend millions promoting ‘only-use-the-name-you-know’ messages... but it’s often marketing baloney,” the site states. 

“Check the ‘PL number’ on the packet. It’s a unique licence number given exclusively to a particular drug made by a particular manufacturer (eg, PL 12063/0104 is a cold and flu remedy). The medicine’s sometimes put in different packaging, but if the PL numbers match, it’s the SAME drug.”

Stuart Gale, owner and chief pharmacist at Oxford Online Pharmacy, confirmed the claims.

“What Mr Lloyd says is true which is why we would always suggest a better value generic equivalent for our customers where available,” he told HuffPost UK.

“We would always recommend ibuprofen over Nurofen for example, because they are exactly the same medication. Of course, there are always some people who prefer the branded version but that is a personal choice.”

The Proprietary Association of Great Britain (PAGB) is the UK trade association that represents manufacturers of branded over-the-counter medicines, self-care medical devices and food supplements.

In a statement given to HuffPost UK, its chief executive, John Smith, claimed branded medicine is sometimes sold at a higher price to cover the cost of research and development. 

“Branded over-the-counter (OTC) medicines enjoy a long-standing heritage of trust and manufacturers invest heavily in years of research and new product development,” he said.

“Many of the manufacturers behind the well-known brands are often the first to bring new medicines to market, that bring new benefits to people such as a faster onset of action, prolonged duration of action or products that were previously only available on prescription.”

He said 20 years is the standard length of patent for prescription medicines, but this is not the case with OTC products. 

“It is exceedingly rare for new OTC medicines to have any form of protection on entry to the market. Other companies are then free to make their own versions, and as they don’t bear the original development costs, they can sell it at a lower price,” he said.

A Nurofen spokesperson also told HuffPost UK pricing “usually takes into account investment in research and product innovation”.

“Nurofen offers more than 10 different registered ibuprofen formulations across our range with different formulations and dosages appropriate for fast, long lasting or strong pain relief, giving consumers a range of choices to meet their requirements. Some of these formulations are not available as generic medicines,” they added.

 “Even if formulations and formats of ibuprofen products seem to be the same, the finished product can still have differences. This is due to additions to the active ingredient which can influence the performance of the overall product such as taste, feel and ease of use.

“Consumer pricing is at the discretion of the retailer.”

HuffPost UK has also contacted Johnson & Johnson, who make Sudafed, for comment and is awaiting response. 

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