If the European Union is the school bully when it comes to terrorising alternative medicine, the British Medicines Control Agency is his scrawny sidekick. Emboldened and inspired by the actions of the bully boy, the MCA has been busy kicking dirt at small children, hoping the bigger kid will finally notice him.
Take, for example, its latest move. Bear in mind that none of the European directives has come into force and, indeed, the two which most concern the MCA - the Traditional Medicines Directive and the amendments to the Pharmaceutical Directive - have not even been passed. Nevertheless, that hasn't stopped the MCA from acting like they are already enshrined into law. This week, the MCA showed its muscle by withdrawing the licence for two types of evening primrose oil. These products, Epogam and Efamast, are to be withdrawn from 7 October, just two weeks after the MCA announced its decision.
After reviewing all the relevant information, the MCA decided that the evidence for evening primrose oil 'does not support the current standard of efficacy required for the authorisation of these products as medicines for the treatment of eczema and mastalgia'. Pharmacia, the manufacturer, will not be allowed to restock pharmacy shelves after 7 October.
The MCA was quick to point out that there is no safety issue here about evening primrose oil. Indeed, evening primrose oil is still available in healthfood shops for anyone who wishes to take it, as the MCA puts it, 'a dietary supplement'.
In other words, Pharmacia's crime was making a medical claim for these products - suggesting that they could be taken as some sort of medicine.
The other products the MCA is busily clearing from the healthfood shelves are any combination products - supplements that contain both vitamins and herbs. These are the products which contain a mere soupcon of herbs just to give the product a little twist - a bit of Ginkgo here, a bit of Echinacea there - so little that, at the end of the day, they are very unlikely to do any harm.
As far as these combo products are concerned, the MCA's sudden tough line may be a preemptive strike to show the EU bully how tough it can really be when it comes to herbs.
The word inside the European Parliament is that the MCA is taking its hard line against combination products and anything that smacks of a 'medicine' because the EU rubbed its face in the fact that, up till now, the MCA has been decidedly lax, particularly with regard to herbs.
What bothers me most about this situation is the blatant double-standard of it all. The same week that we hear that there isn't enough evidence to support the current standard of efficacy and safety for evening primrose oil, a major study is published showing what we at WDDTY have been shouting about for 13 years: that hormone replacement therapy is worthless and, worse than that, highly dangerous (see p 11). Nevertheless, there is not even the merest hint that these products - which are not only worthless for their indications, but highly dangerous - are to be withdrawn.
It seems to be decidedly back-to-front that alternative practitioners are now legally obliged to be knowledgeable of the reactions the healthy diets they prescribe may have with any medicines their patients are taking while, at the same time, there is no similar requirement for doctors to be aware of all the side-effects of the drugs they prescribe (see Alternatives, pp 6-7). If they were, Britain wouldn't be suffering the equivalent of the World Trade Center casualties every single month from prescription drugs alone.
Any smart supplement manufacturers at this moment should be amending their labels to indicate that what they are selling is nothing more than a condensed form of food.
As for you consumers, if any of these products do you any good at all, to keep the bully boy off your back, it's essential that you keep that piece of information to yourself.