Yesterday, Wednesday 16 February 2011, could well go down as a momentous day in the history of herbalism in the UK. After nearly 20 years of campaigning by herbal medicine practitioners, several changes of government and numerous missed deadlines and broken promises, the UK government finally announced that it will officially recognise herbal medicine, and allow herbalists to continue to prescribe unlicensed herbal medicines on the condition that they are registered by the Health Professions Council. This will give them legal status to use unlicensed medicines under EU medicines law (Directive 2001/83/EC). It is a similar provision used by doctors and pharmacists to prescribe unlicensed products (or prescribe drugs for off-label indications).

Good news – and confusion

This is, of course, a cause for celebration – if you are a UK-based practitioner or patient. However, the timing of the announcement appears to have sown confusion among the giants of UK media. “Chinese medicine and herbal ban to see Britain defy EU laws” was the Metro’s garbled headline, above a story that stated “Their decision will allow health food shops to continue stocking many pills and supplements which were due to be outlawed from the end of April”. “Herbal medicines will survive after ministers approve plan that bypasses EU directive” warbled the Daily Mail, going on to say “Herbal and Chinese medicines that faced an EU ban are to stay on sale…the Government moved yesterday to protect consumers wanting herbal products that will disappear from many health food shops after April 30”.

The problem with these stories? They’re wildly inaccurate and cover only one side of the story!

Both sides of the story

The stories quoted above confuse two issues: statutory regulation of UK herbalists and the effect of the EU’s Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive (THMPD) on manufactured herbal medicines available to buy off-the-shelf in health-food stores or on the Internet. State recognition will protect herbalism and make UK herbalists unique among their European colleagues, but this will not prevent many of the herbal products currently available off-the-shelf in health-food stores across the EU and via Internet outlets from becoming illegal on 1st May 2011, if they are not registered under the THMPD scheme.

Consumers denied health choice

Consumers used to using high-street herbal products to maintain their health will be forced by the THMPD to consult an herbalist to obtain the manufactured products they rely on. Instead of the relatively minimal cost of a finished herbal product purchased from a trusted retailer, consumers will have to fund the costs of a consultation that, in some cases, may not be necessary to obtain their herbal medicines. Quite simply, lower-income consumers will be penalised, with many likely to face difficulty justifying the additional cash flow required to cover the practitioner’s fees along with the cost of products. 

Retailers threatened with loss of revenue

The effect of the THMPD on retailers of finished herbal products will be devastating, as many product lines will no longer be able to be sold, although stock held after 30th April 2011 can be sold through.

Sara Novakovic of Oliver’s Wholefoods said: “There will be hundreds, if not thousands, of herbal products banned that have never been shown to have negative side effects. Proper regulation would be very welcome and supported by all in the natural health field. This legislation however, is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The cost of the licenses is prohibitive to all but the largest of players. Innovation will be stifled, people's health will suffer and so the cost to the NHS will rise.”

Seventh Wave Supplements reiterated similar views: “The THMPD represents a huge and unjustified threat to our business. We pride ourselves on the very best possible quality whole-herb supplements, 100% additive free, Good Manufacturing Practice-certified and the like. We already meet and exceed the requirements of a vast amount of legislation that ensures complete consumer safety, let alone the thousands of years of herbal tradition with an impeccable safety record. But the reality is that licensing costs of up to £120,000 per herbal product puts registration completely out of the realms of possibility for most players. So, while a small handful of products – typically standardised extracts with a staggering plethora of additives – will remain on the market, we face the stark reality of the possible loss of some of the safest and purest traditional herbs available in the UK. In our view, it is an absolute tragedy for business and customers alike, and will damage a proud, vibrant, and long-standing section of the British economy.”

We think that says it all.

ANH-Intl are incredibly grateful for your continued support for our forthcoming legal challenge of the THMPD, and as always, we would be delighted to accept your help in terms of donations, time, ideas or spreading the word!

For more information

ANH-Intl press release on THMPD [16 Feb 2011]

ANH-Intl news item on Ministerial announcement on statutory regulation of herbalists in the UK [16 Feb 2011]

UK Ministerial announcement on statutory regulation of herbalists [16 Feb 2011]

ANH-Intl feature on THMPD impact [16 Feb 2011]:

ANH-Intl legal challenge page