Herbal Medicine – How the EU Ruling Affects You

May 18, 2011

May is not so merry this year if you, like me, are a fan of alternative medicine. Though calling herbal medicine alternative is a misnomer as it is has been used safely for hundreds of years and many common drugs are based on their active ingredients being synthesized, patented and made profitable. This move only helps drug companies and ignores thousands of years of medical knowledge.

This is despite the fact that recent studies show that at least six million Britons (26% of adults) have used a herbal medicine in the past two years and high level support from the Prince of Wales and Professor George Lewith, professor of health research at Southampton University, who said: ‘Evidence for the efficacy of herbal medicines is growing; they may offer cheap, safe and effective approaches for many common complaints.’

Unfortunately those views, and the thousands who signed the online petitions to the EU have been ignored and we have now lost access to hundreds of herbal medicines after European regulations came into force banning sales of all herbal remedies, except for a small number of popular products for ‘mild’ illness such as echinacea for colds and St John’s Wort for depression. The EU Directive erects high barriers to any herbal remedy that hasn’t been on the market for 30 years – though they are only concerned with commercial sales – not the hundreds of years of experiential use. That includes the most popular traditional systems like Chinese and Ayurvedic as well as the long-established English herbal tradition.

No more popping into your health store, or more recently Boots, to buy your herbal medicines but instead finding a practitioner – not all that numerous – and having to pay a consultation fee is going to deter many people. Both herbal remedy practitioners and long-established manufacturers like fear they could be forced out of business as a result.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley approved a plan for the Health Professions Council to establish a register of practitioners supplying unlicensed herbal medicines, and in a written statement said the Government wanted to ensure continuing access to unlicensed herbal medicines via a statutory register for practitioners ‘to meet individual patient needs’. Well, not this patient and as this register is only open to those who could afford the licensing process which costs between £80,000 to £120,000 many individual practitioners are at risk of losing their business and livelihood.

At least 50 herbs, including horny goat weed (so-called natural Viagra), hawthorn berry, used for angina pain, and wild yam will no longer be stocked in health food shops, according to the British Herbal Medicine Association. Some familiar preparations may also disappear to be replaced by alternative licensed formulas, which may contain different ingredients – in some cases ‘unnatural’ ingredients such as artificial colourings.

Richard Woodfield, the head of herbal medicine policy at the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency claims that “the scheme means that consumers will have access to a wide choice of over-the-counter herbal medicines made to assured standards. The current signs are that the market will be lively and competitive. The key difference for consumers is that in future they will be in the driving seat and able to make an informed choice when they wish to use these medicines.”

Quite how you make an informed choice when your access to the proven remedies is limited is beyond me and presumably to the 750,000 people who also signed the petition against the ban. If the criteria is safety – as stated – then how safe is it to force people to buying online without the benefit of advice or from long-established companies with a proven track record?

There is an international trade in poor-quality, unregulated and unlicensed herbal products. Some of these have been found to contain banned pharmaceutical ingredients or heavy metals which are poisonous.

Licensing and registering is going to make money for the government and limit your choice to the few large commercial companies who can afford to do so. My advice is if you have a favourite herbal remedy you have been using for years then stock up quickly before it is no longer available or buy online only from a reputable company.

To find a herbalist in your area consult the National Institute of Medical Herbalists at www.nimh.org.uk or www.associationofmasterherbalists.co.uk


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