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How Big Pharma Medications Get Named

Are cheap prescription pills hard to pronounce on purpose?

Why are the names of some pharmaceutically produced drugs so challenging to pronounce? With certain branded medications, the name just floats out of your mouth.

Alex Zaitchik, author of the book, Owning the Sun, the People's History of Monopoly Medicine from Aspirin to COVID-19 Vaccines, says that originally the American Medical Association (AMA) enforced rules around the scientific names of new drugs. "They had to be brief, memorable and clear, and they were usually Latin flowers, plants, cannabis, things people could remember.”

However, as Zaitchik points out, today “the incentives changed for remembering scientific names versus brand names and trademarks.” Products with names that are easy to remember and roll off the tip of your tongue are more commonly used for branding.

Generic versions of pharmaceuticals are named after their scientific or chemical name, instead of the easy-to-remember names of Latin plants and flowers, such as Cannabis. 

He explains that brand names are trademarked by companies and used for medications and drugs for which the company holds patents or intellectual rights. It’s also common for a drug to treat different illnesses, in which case it will have multiple patents and several different brand names.

The naming of medications, treatments, and pills is anything but random. As Alex Zaitchik points out, there is an established process and method implemented by the AMA in the U.S. and similar associations globally. The bottom line is if you want to save some money, learn how to pronounce those difficult-to-say generic names.

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