Consumers and Sustainability: OTC Medications and Supplements

To evaluate the safety of over-the-counter (OTC) medications and supplements, consumers primarily look to a product’s ingredients. Consumers tend to regard OTC medicines — and especially supplements — that use natural ingredients as inherently safe and gentle due to their perceived lack of industrial manufacturing.

Manufacturers and marketers of OTC medications can cue natural by highlighting “real” ingredients (and the perceived purity of natural ingredients such as aloe) that are part of the ingredient profile. And for supplements in particular, creating a narrative about natural treatment can be very effective. Packaging communications can refer to long-standing acceptance or traditional use of a natural ingredient to suggest that use of the product is a natural way to proactively manage health: for example, “Ginseng has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine for its unique healing properties. Our Asian ginseng has natural ‘heating’ properties that may help improve circulation and support immunity.”

For many consumers, in addition, product safety is intimately connected to waste disposal issues. Consumers describe their anxiety over where the byproducts of OTC medication production and consumption “go” when disposed of by the manufacturer or through human waste. Animal testing is another area of contention in this category.

The use of certified organic ingredients cues safe and environmentally sustainable, since organic production precludes the use of the pesticides and monocrops associated with conventional farming. While these perceptions are most relevant to supplements, which are usually taken in pill form, they also apply to mass-produced topical ointments, since they are absorbed by the skin and can enter the bloodstream. 

Product safety and environmental sustainability increasingly overlap with notions of product quality. Consumers use the term “natural” to describe over-the-counter medicines and supplements that they view to be of highest quality. This characteristic is especially relevant for supplements, since they are made from ingredients that are plant- or animal-based. Even more than is the case with food products, conversely, consumers are wary of foreign-produced supplements and over-the-counter drugs, fearing that there is lack of transparency about and regulation of their production.

According to Hartman Group data, 64 percent of sustainability-minded American adults purchase OTC health-care products in a given month, while 15 percent of these consumers purchase natural or nontoxic versions of such products. More broadly, according to Packaged Facts estimates, half of the OTC medicine and supplement products on the market in the U.S. market feature some type of sustainability claim, whether based on manufacturing practices, product formulation, or packaging.

Natural or organic claims remain the most popular type of sustainability positioning, though these claims have dropped somewhat in prevalence over the last five years. In contrast, negative claims related to product formulation [m] such as no artificial ingredients or colors, or no additives, fillers or fragrances [m] have been gaining in prevalence, accounting for one-fourth of products in the category as of 2009.  

Percent of OTC Medicine and Supplement Products Marketed With Natural/Organic or Negative Content Claims, 2005 vs. 2009 (P)

Figures for 2009 are projections based on information gathered through August 2009.
Source: Packaged Facts

Among OTC health-care product buyers overall, according to Hartman data, over a third report being willing to pay a cost premium for a sustainable version of these products. Nonetheless, even committed sustainability consumers will modify their behavior in response to deteriorating financial conditions. Such tradeoffs and cutbacks are less likely to be made in product categories that sustainability consumers view as essential to their quality of life, with food at the top of that list. Over-the-counter medications and supplements, however, are not considered quite as essential. Consumer cutbacks, therefore, are more likely to hurt sales of higher-priced sustainable versions of OTC medications.

At the same time, larger consumer spending patterns created by the recession stand to benefit the over-the-counter health-care market. A Kalorama Information study, entitled “Healthcare in a Recession” (April 2009), reports that sales of OTC medications are performing well in the current economic climate as customers seek to avoid not only the high cost of medications but also time spent in waiting rooms and the high co-pay and/or out of pocket doctor’s fees associated with a prescription pharmaceutical. At the same time, sales of sustainable OTC health-care products in particular have room to grow due to concerns over the safety of some prescription medications. According to a Medco Health Solutions report, use of prescription drugs declined in 2008 (the first such drop in over a decade) due to factors including concerns about drug safety. In the OTC medication and supplement category, as in the food category, therefore, the market is ripe for products that enable consumers to shop more sustainably without spending more money.

This article, the second of a four-part series, draws from “Consumers and Sustainability: Over-the-Counter Medications and Supplements” (September 2009), a joint publication of The Hartman Group and Packaged Facts.
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