America’s Most Popular Drugs

The most popular medicine in the U.S. was prescribed 128 million times last year, even as a panel of experts called together by the Food and Drug Administration recommended that regulators ban it.

The drug is Vicodin, a 40-year-old addictive medicine that combines the narcotic hydrocodone with acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol; the prescription tally also includes numerous generic versions. It is emblematic of the trend that emerges from our look at the most popular prescription pills: the death of the blockbuster drug.

The second most popular drug in the U.S. is generic Zocor, or simvastatin. The cholesterol-lowering drug was once Merck’s biggest seller, but Merck lost its patent protection in 2006. Doctors prescribed it 83 million times last year. One reason: It is proven to save lives, and it costs only $1 a pill, far less than Lipitor.

The third most popular drug, with 81.3 million prescriptions, is the blood-pressure-lowering medicine linsinopril, which used to be sold under the brand names Zestril and Prinivil. Overall, 6 of the top 15 most prescribed meds are blood-pressure-lowering drugs. There are so many good generic blood pressure drugs that it is difficult for brand-name drugmakers to improve upon them.

The No. 5 drug, azithromycin, is the generic version of Pfizer’s popular antibiotic Zithromax. It tallied 53 million prescriptions last year. Like Vicodin, it’s a much-maligned medicine whose popularity was once blamed on overmarketing. It’s not being advertised to doctors or consumers anymore, but it’s still overused.