Health, fitness and Food

Branded painkillers? You’re just paying for the fancy packet, say experts

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  • ‘Clever marketing’ makes patients spend up to ten times more, say experts
  • An investigation found Britons spend £100million on cough syrup a year
  • But some doctors say there is no need to spend so much on remedies

 

Britons spend an astonishing £100 million a year on cough syrup – when a glass of honey and lemon could work just as well, according to a new BBC television investigation.

It claims that branded painkillers that say they specifically treat certain types of pain are just using ‘clever marketing’ to make patients spend up to ten times more than they would on unbranded products, and that some manufacturers simply use the same pills in different packaging throughout their ranges.

'Clever marketing': Dr Chris Van Tulleken with a range of packets that, he says, may contain exactly the same pills

‘Clever marketing’: Dr Chris Van Tulleken with a range of packets that, he says, may contain exactly the same pills

 

‘Clever marketing’: Dr Chris Van Tulleken with a range of packets that, he says, may contain exactly the same pills

The UK over-the-counter medicines market, which also includes painkillers and anti-fungal creams, is worth £2.5 billion, with brands vying for attention with brightly coloured packaging and promises that are questionable under scrutiny, claims Dr Chris Van Tulleken.

In The Truth About Medicine, to be broadcast on Thursday, Dr Van Tulleken, an infectious diseases specialist, warns we should think less about convenience and more about the effectiveness of medicines.

There are three main types of over-the-counter cough remedies, those that contain suppressants to alleviate symptoms of a dry, tickly cough, syrups that reduce the urge to cough by coating the throat, and products that help to thin sticky mucus, making coughing easier.

Some also contain paracetamol or ibuprofen, both of which reduce a temperature, decongestants and antihistamines that can help sleep.

Yet an authoritative study from Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre claimed cough medicines work mostly through a placebo effect, and that just 15 per cent of the effect can be attributed to the medicines in them.

THREE WAYS TO TREAT… MOUTH ULCERS

PREVENT: Sores on the inside of the mouth or cheeks can be caused by damage to the lining of the mouth from hot foods, biting your cheek or even rubbing dentures.

They can also be a sign of an iron or Vitamin B12 deficiency, so a balanced diet can help prevent them. Spicy foods and chocolate can be triggers, so keep a food diary if you have recurrent outbreaks to pinpoint problem foods.

It’s also worth checking your toothpaste – formulas that contain a foaming agent called sodium lauryl sulphate can cause mouth ulcers by reducing the protective mucus layer in the mouth. You might consider switching brands.

TREAT: Over-the-counter antiseptic gels can bring relief from the stinging and help form a protective layer around the mouth ulcer to speed up healing. You could also try a medicated mouthwash containing chlorhexidine, which is anti-inflammatory and helps reduce bacteria.

If you have had mouth ulcers for more than three weeks, go to your GP or dentist, who may prescribe steroids in the form of a tablet, mouth spray or gel.

DON’T BOTHER: Some people believe upping their Vitamin C intake will cure their mouth ulcers, as the vitamin is known to help the wound-healing process, but too much can actually irritate the mouth.

Stick to the daily recommended allowance of 40mg per day (30mg for children aged one to ten) through a healthy diet.

A study of 60 over-the-counter medicines found that all but two contained sweeteners such as honey or sucrose, which can stimulate saliva and mucus production.

In the documentary, Dr Van Tulleken shows how an old-fashioned remedy of honey and lemon could be just the tonic to banish a troublesome cough. He inhales pepper spray into his lungs, which makes him cough, then takes a lemon-and-honey concoction. He inhales the pepper spray once more, but doesn’t cough at all.

Professor Alyn Morice of Hull University, who also appears in the programme, admits there is no good scientific answer as to why the home-made cure is as effective but, with no potential side effects, the health benefits are obvious.

The Proprietary Association of Great Britain (PAGB), a trade association representing manufacturers of over-the-counter medicines, says that although it is difficult to test the effectiveness of cough medicines, as the severity and duration of symptoms can vary, research has shown they are rated as effective by 90 per cent of consumers.

The film also reveals that UK families spend £350 million on a variety of painkillers, with packaging claiming to specifically target ailments such as period pain, headaches or muscular problems.

For example, Nurofen and Feminax both market forms of ibuprofen that are aimed specifically at those suffering from period pain, while Panadol ActiFast, which is a branded form of paracetamol, claims on the packet to treat tension headaches, period pains and toothache.

But Dr Van Tulleken says that once the medicine is absorbed into the bloodstream, there is no way to send it to a particular part of the body.

He also reveals that different branded packets all have an identical product licence number, which means they look different but contain exactly the same pills.

‘It isn’t that the manufacturers are being untruthful, but it is clever marketing to tempt you to spend more money,’ said Dr Van Tulleken.

The Truth About Medicine looks at branded painkillers

The investigation claims branded painkillers that say they specifically treat certain types of pain are just using ‘clever marketing’ to make patients spend up to ten times more than they would on unbranded products

The investigation claims branded painkillers that say they specifically treat certain types of pain are just using ‘clever marketing’ to make patients spend up to ten times more than they would on unbranded products

PAGB chief executive Matthew Speers told this newspaper: ‘People search for products to treat their specific symptoms, so different labelling and packaging help people navigate the range more easily.

‘There are different formulations and formats of over-the-counter medicines, which could mean a painkiller gets to work faster or provides pain relief for longer, even if it has the same active ingredient.

‘For example, migraine products work faster while back pain products tend to be longer-lasting.’

Dr Van Tulleken says: ‘Some medicines are a waste of our hard-earned cash. Products may be convenient but not necessarily effective.’

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