Herbal remedies face the chop

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Herbal remedies face licence rule

According to the BBC, “Hundreds of traditional and imported remedies on the shelves of health food shops and herbalists are set to be banned under new licensing rules”.

An EU directive aims to protect users from any damaging side-effects that can arise from taking unsuitable medicines.   Come May 1st, all such products must be licensed.

Readers of this website will probably realise that there are very few herbal remedies that I will write about.  I am a great one for solid evidence, and so many herbal products have no clinical trials to back up their claims.  In fact the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency) says that some can be dangerous.

BUT – many thousands take these remedies, and say they work for them.

And what has worried me,  watching the progress of this EU Directive, is that as far as I can see it has been driven by the drug companies – angry that their expensive products are sometimes by-passed by consumers worried about drug side effects, and preferring to take something they perceive as safe.

As usual, it is the poor patient who is in the middle, caught up in draconian laws demanded by big business.

To a certain extent, the Directive makes sense.  As a journalist I get access to many horror stories about the side effects from herbal remedies.  But I also am told by nurses of herbal remedies that help their patients, and occasionally write about these if a nurse whom I trust says something definitely seems to benefit their patients.

Provided patients tell their medical team if they are taking a herbal supplement, and they buy from a reputable source, surely there is no harm in this?


Many people firmly believe that a herbal remedy does them good, particularly when dealing with hot flushes.  As long as they have discussed taking this remedy with their medical team, why should they now be denied something that they say is helpful?

Interviewed by the BBC, Selwyn Soe runs The Herbal Factory, a contract manufacturer of herbal remedies in Croydon, south London. He believes smaller firms like his own will be squeezed out altogether.

“Unfortunately it looks as if we will have to close down because of this legislation,” he said.  “The problem for us is that although we would have to pay many thousands of pounds for a licence to keep making each product, unlike a drug company we would not have a licence to make that product exclusively. It just will not be worth paying out the money.”

The Maple Leaf Pharmacy in Twickenham, west London, specialises in alternative and holistic medicine alongside its conventional chemist business. Owner Galen Rosenberg estimates that about 20% of the health products sold in his pharmacy will simply vanish off the shelves. In some health food shops a far larger percentage of existing lines are likely to be outlawed.

Mr Rosenberg said he welcomed improved labelling, indicating side-effects, but said the rest of the directive was over the top.  ” We have something which we recommend for hot flushes ….  results have been excellent, but from April I will not be able to order these products in, because the producing company is not large and will not be able to afford the hundreds of thousands of pounds needed to invest for the new regulations,” he said.

“The new rules are very much in favour of large companies. It is the loss of freedom of choice which worries me. We also expect massive price increases because of the cost of compliance.”

MHRA is pleased
However, the regulator of all these pills and potions says the aim is to protect consumers, not to pick off small suppliers.  Richard Woodfield, of the MHRA, rejects any suggestions that the legislation is draconian.

“What regulation does is to ensure products meet assured standards. Although the standards are challenging, they are achievable and manageable,” he said.  “We already have 24 different companies regulating under the scheme and they are certainly not all large companies.”

Yet a leading medicines specialist says he fears the consumer may not be much wiser come May this year.

Professor David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, said the changes were of limited value because the rules did not require makers to show any evidence of whether the newly licensed products were effective.

The ban may not help

What will probably happen is that patients, who swear by a particular herbal remedy to help their condition, instead of buying from a reputable high street shop, where the owner has a vested interest in ensuring their clients aren’t sold anything that might have harmful effects, will be shut down.

In their place the online agencies, working offshore with no regulations to worry about, will be selling their remedies in vast quantities, with no regulation or even concerns over customer safety.

What can you do?

If you swear by a certain herbal remedy, discuss this with your doctor.  If they confirm this is safe, contact the manufacturer to find out if they have applied to have this approved.

If not, then it is a case of contacting your MP or MEP.

And the irony is, the EU insists that in future, only high quality, long established and scientifically safe herbal medicines can be sold over the counter. But the label still will not be able to tell customers if they can be shown to work.

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One thought on “Herbal remedies face the chop

  1. Ann Fonfa January 26, 2011 at 9:45 pm Reply

    As a patient advocate with a strong interest in natural products and therapies as well as lifestyle changes, I must point out that the lack of evidence is only true if you discount all the evidence there is. There will NEVER be Level 1, that must be what you refer to. Randomized clinical trials are not done on substances or protocols that cannot be patented this is true in the US and around the world.
    BUT, it has to be pointed out that all the approved drugs that have been taken off the market, went through RTCs and then ‘somehow’ were found to cause increased death or terrible unwanted (aka ‘side’) effects. Like all patient advocates, I want the label to state exactly what is in the bottle. I would like the company to use GMP and careful measurements. I also think studies should be correlated to products as they do exist. In the US, it is a crime to show this connection.

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