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Save money at the pharmacy

They've become household names: Celebrex, Lipitor, Pristiq, Toviaz. You've probably seen the ads on television.

Drugmakers shell out billions of dollars each year to target consumers with those ads ($4.3 billion in 2009) and even more for promotions aimed at doctors ($6.6 billion in 2009), according to IMS Health, an industry group that monitors drugs sales and marketing.

The trouble is that the ads work. Consumer Reports' research shows about one out of every five people who take a prescription medication said they have asked their doctor to prescribe a drug they saw advertised; of those, 59 percent said the doctors complied, according to a survey in May 2010 by Consumer Reports.

What the ads won't tell you is that those newer drugs are often no safer or more effective than older medications that cost a fraction of the price.

That's where Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs comes in. CR doesn't test drugs the way it tests cars or refrigerators; it uses research from experts at the Drug Effectiveness Review Project, based at Oregon Health & Science University. The CR Best Buy picks could save you hundreds or thousands of dollars a year.

Most of the CR Best Buy picks are generics. To get approval from the Food and Drug Administration, a generic-drug maker must prove that its product contains the identical active ingredient as its brand-name counterpart and that the drug is "bioequivalent," meaning that as much active ingredient enters and leaves the bloodstream as fast or as slowly. Generics that meet those criteria should have the same therapeutic effect as brand-name drugs.

>High cholesterol

Not all cholesterol-lowering statins are the same. Inexpensive generics are the best option unless you have had a heart attack or have another heart problem.

Here are the CR Best Buys:

*Generic lovastatin or pravastatin. To lower LDL cholesterol by less than 30 percent.

*Generic simvastatin. To lower LDL cholesterol by 30 percent or more for those who have heart disease or diabetes, or for those whose LDL is not highly elevated but who have had a heart attack or have acute coronary syndrome.

*Atorvastatin (Lipitor). For those who have had a heart attack or have acute coronary syndrome and highly elevated LDL.

>Diabetes

Older diabetes drugs work just as well as newer drugs and are safer in some cases. They could also save you a lot of money. CR Best Buys:

*Metformin

*Glimepiride

*Glipizide and Glipizide Sustained Release

>Heartburn

Make sure you really need a prescription medication; many people don't. If you do, pick the least expensive option because no one drug is clearly better than another. CR Best Buys:

*Generic omeprazole

*Prevacid 24HR

*Prilosec OTC

>Depression

Antidepressants can help some people, but they aren't always necessary. CR Best Buys:

*Generic bupropion

*Generic citalopram

*Generic fluoxetine

*Generic paroxetine

*Generic sertraline

>Pain

For moderate pain, generic drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen are your best bets.

>Allergies

Newer antihistamines are less likely to cause drowsiness, but they cost more than older drugs. Inexpensive generics are the best option. CR Best Buys:

*Generic loratadine

*Alavert (loratadine)

By the editors of Consumer Reports at www.consumerreports.org.

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