While waiting to have a prescription filled in a pharmacy in my office building the other day, I overheard a discussion between the pharmacist and an elderly customer.

The customer had a prescription for the brand-name drug Persantine, used for the long-term treatment of angina. It would cost him $30.95 for the 100 75-milligram pills. The pharmacist was trying to convince the man that he should have the prescription filled with dipyridamole, the generic equivalent of Persantine. The cost of that drug would be only $9.95 for the same quantity and dosage.

The man could have saved more than $20 on that one prescription by having it filled with a generic instead of a brand-name drug. And since he may have to take that drug for the rest of his life, he could probably save $250 a year or more by using the generic equivalent.

But he refused. "If it costs less, it can't be as good," he told the pharmacist.

How wrong he was. The fact is that equivalent generic drugs are just as safe and effective as brand-name drugs, and usually far less costly.

Yet American consumers today are the targets of a growing campaign by some brand-name drug manufacturers to dissuade them from using generic drug products.

In recent months, we've seen a host of seemingly objective, independent academicians and practitioners speaking out against generic drugs, without disclosing who is paying them to do so.

For example, on the NBC "Today" show in January, a spokesman for a newly formed group calling itself "Concern for Understanding of Research in Ethical Pharmaceuticals" blatantly misinformed the public about the safety and efficacy of generics. He claimed that the Food and Drug Administration does not use the same rigorous testing standards for generic drugs as it does for brand-name products.

That claim, of course, was absolutely untrue. Moreover, neither the spokesman nor the "Today" show revealed that the "Concern for Understanding of Research in Ethical Pharmaceuticals" group is supported by Ayerst Laboratories, a brand-name drug manufacturer.

Another group called "Medicine in the Public Interest" is also questioning the FDA's approval process for generic drug products. This so-called "public interest" group is actually supported by brand-name drug company funds.

"Medicine in the Public Interest" is represented by an attorney who was previously involved with the "Committee for the Care of Children." That group, also subsidized by industry funds, was created to oppose the placement of Reye's syndrome warning labels on aspirin. So much for the public interest.

Perhaps the most far-reaching effort to disparage generic drugs can be found in the continuing anti-generic crusade of a tabloid called the Medical Tribune. This magazine is supported by brand-name industry advertising and is published by the owner of an advertising firm that represents brand-name companies.

The tabloid, which is sent free to 150,000 doctors, has little of the scholarly merit attributed to The New England Journal of Medicine or the Journal of the American Medical Association. And because of the backing this publication receives, its readers should seriously question whether its articles are prompted by scientific or economic concerns.

Unfortunately, Medical Tribune has apparently succeeded in worrying some physicians about the quality of generic drug products and the competency of the FDA. A few months ago, for example, a spokesman for the American Academy of Family Physicians, appearing on the "McNeill-Lehrer NewsHour," cited Medical Tribune articles as "evidence" of the poor quality of generics.

This "smear and fear" campaign against generic drugs is victimizing millions of consumers, particularly older Americans. Older people are the primary users of long-term maintenance drugs for chronic conditions. Like the elderly gentleman I described earlier, they could save a great deal of money by using generic products instead of more costly brand names. Yet they are being scared away from generics by those who impugn their safety and efficacy for purely economic reasons.

One of the most important consumer victories of the past 20 years was the passage of legislation in every state allowing generic drug substitution in the filling of prescriptions. This hard-fought legislative effort, led by the American Association of Retired Persons and other consumer groups, has resulted in untold millions of dollars in savings for Americans of all ages without any diminution in the quality of their drug therapies.

It's unfortunate that certain brand-name drug companies are now trying to win, through a campaign of misinformation, what they lost in the legislative arena.

In the long run, however, these companies are only hurting themselves and their industry. Their blatant anti-generic efforts are creating a more cynical group of consumers and eroding their credibility with policymakers, business leaders and the general public.

Ultimately, they are going to have to make a choice between ethics and profits.