HC Deb 12 May 1882 vol 269 cc594-9

, who had the following Notice upon the Paper:— To call attention to the subject of the sale of Patent Medicines; and to move, That it is desirable that restrictions should be placed on the sale of Patent Medicines of a poisonous character, said, that, before entering upon the subject, he desired to mention that when the clôture debate was resumed—if it ever should be—and the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for India (the Marquess of Hartington) was in his place, he intended to refer to a statement made by the noble Marquess to the effect that he (Mr. Warton) was one of four Members of the House who had made the cloôure necessary. With regard to the subject of patent medicines, the word "patent" arose, as the House was probably aware, from the fact that in ancient times letters "patent"—that was, open letters—were granted to certain persons with the monopoly of vending certain articles. He believed the earliest patent medicine on record was Dr. Stoughton's Stomachic Elixir, though he could not inform the House what the ingredients were. Abuses having arisen through the granting of these monopolies, Parliament soon interposed with restrictions. The patents were limited to a certain term of years, and a specification or definition of their character was also required. Those specifications were often of a very vague description; and the inventors of those medicines found that they could do better without a patent than with one. An Act of the 52nd of George III. was passed on that subject. It was provided that inventors of those medicines should no longer be obliged to take out patents, but that they should be required to pay Stamp Duties. Every kind of appeal was made; there were English pills and Scotch pills, pills with grand Latin names, and pills with grand Greek names, in order to impress the mind of the vulgar with the good of these patent medicines. All this showed how these quacks were in the habit of giving their nostrums the most high-sounding and quasi-classical names, the better to impose upon the public. The first point to which he wished to direct the attention of the Government was that a good deal of quackery was promoted by the Government stamp now levied on these medicines, the price of which was often advertised as 1s. 1½d. with the Government stamp. An apparent sanction, which he strongly disapproved, was thus given by the Government to these medicines; and he suggested that, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer still thought fit to levy those duties, there ought, at least, to be some restriction placed on the use of the words on the label which referred to the Government stamp. Words to this effect might be used—"This duty is levied for fiscal purposes, and there is no Government guarantee of the goodness of the medicine." The Government, he held, ought not to be supposed to profit from the evil which resulted to the public through the sale of those medicines. The next point which he urged was that, at present, although restrictions were placed by the Pharmacy Act of 1868 on the sale of poisons, properly so called, and although no one, unless he were a medical man, could get certain poisons without very great difficulty, yet it was open to any patent medicine vendor to sell those medicines, although they might contain any quantity of poison. The 16th section of the Pharmacy Act seemed to reserve the rights of persons making or dealing in patent medicines. He wished to see vested interests properly respected; but they ought to be jealous of vested interests affecting the public health, and he wondered how it was that the quack medicine interest was so strong in 1868 as to obtain the insertion in the Act of that year of words of special exemption in its favour. The 17th section, no doubt, said that it should be unlawful to sell any poison, wholesale or retail, unless the bottle or packet containing it was distinctly labelled "poison;" but he doubted whether those words overrode the special exemption in the 16th clause as to patent medicines. In illustration of this anomaly, he would call the attention of the House to a case which occurred in the High Street, Kensington, in January last, in which a chemist was charged with selling a bottle of Hunter's Solution of Chloral without attaching a label bearing the word "poison" to the bottle. He referred to that case to show what amount of poison there might be in a patent medicine. Counsel explained that the solution contained 264 grains in a large bottle and 88 grains in a small bottle; it was undoubtedly a poison, and 30 grains of it might prove fatal. He merely mentioned this to show what a terrible thing it was to have poison sold in this way. Chlorodyne, again, was one of the quack medicines most frequently sold, and was a most dangerous compound. A case had also occurred of a lady in the West of England who had been in the habit of taking this dreadful remedy, and who had obtained, unknown to her husband, between the 19th of October and the 8th of November, above £3 worth of chlorodyne, and she had so injured her brain and nervous system that she was now the inmate of a lunatic asylum. It was well known, also, that the manner of advertising patent medicines produced a world of harm, because when persons were ill they took something, and after they had taken something, if they did not die, they recovered, and advertised their recovery as the result of taking the medicine. An unfortunate Norfolk clergyman, with whom he (Mr. Warton) was acquainted, had taken some patent medicine, and, on the principle of post hoc propter hoc, had written a letter to the vendor attributing his recovery to the patent medicine, and said he would be glad to answer any inquiries. In the first week after the vendor published the letter the clergyman received 800 letters; and, as he was a man of his word, he answered them all, the stamps, paper, and envelopes, almost amounting to his small income. That showed what a hold these medicines had upon the public; and it also proved how many fools there were in the world, and the necessity of something being done in the direction he had indicated. Every trifling incident was turned into an advertisement, even such an incident as a traveller giving a pill to an Arab Chief. The advertisers appealed to the Government stamp, and the public thought that was a guarantee. Why should it not be made obligatory to state that the stamp did not involve any guarantee? And when the patent medicines contained poisons, why should not the vendors be compelled to state the fact, just as much as when they sold poisons by themselves? The sale of coffee adulterated with chicory was a trifling matter compared with the sale of medicines containing poison. He hoped he should be forgiven for having occupied 26 minutes in bringing forward this interesting and important subject.


said, he must congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Bridport (Mr. Warton) on the fact that this Motion, which had been hanging over their heads so long, had at length been brought freely and openly before the House; and he would, at the same time, acknowledge that the hon. and learned Gentleman had rendered good service by bringing it forward. It had attracted a good deal of attention in medical circles, because there was no doubt there had been a great deal of looseness in the sale of poisons through these patent medicines; and many deplorable results, ending in death, had taken place from poisons having been freely taken under the name of patent medicines. It was quite true that under the 16th section of the Pharmacy Act, patent medicines were excluded from the operation of that Act; but in Section 17 it was necessary to label everything containing poison. This provision, however, had been very much neglected in the case of patent medicines, because the popular impression was that under Section 16 these medicines were still exempt. Chlorodyne contained four or five virulent poisons, though several were antagonistic, and neutralized the other. Hunter's Solution of Chloral contained a very strong dose of chloral indeed; but perhaps one of the most dangerous of all, from which many painful cases had resulted, was Kaye's Compound Essence of Linseed, which was labelled as a marvellous cure for coughs, colds, and asthma. It contained a large quantity of morphia, and there was not the slightest indication that any poisonous substance was contained it. Only the other day a serious case of poisoning occurred to a child, by taking this remedy, which bore the Government stamp, and which could be sold by anyone who had a 5s. licence. Any grocer, bookseller, or co-operative store who sold these drugs lost nothing in reputation if a fatal case occurred, whereas a chemist lost very largely indeed. To illustrate the absurdity of this, he stated that the Pharmacopœal Society's Solution of Chloral could not be sold except by a registered chemist; but Mr. Hunter put a patent medicine stamp upon his solution, which was double the strength of the other, and it was sold with impunity by grocers, stationers, and co-operative stores. At one of those stores a Yorkshire lady had obtained a chloral prescription, which the local chemists had refused to make up, with the result that a few days afterwards she was found dead in bed. It was a question whether it might not be well to do away with patent medicine licences altogether; but he would not dwell upon the question further, as he knew the subject had been recently undergoing the careful consideration of the Legislature, and he was sure it might be safely left in the hands of the experienced officials at the Home Office.


said, he was also glad the question had been at last brought to maturity; and though the hon. and learned Member for Bridport (Mr. War- ton) had rather been open to ridicule in consequence of the Motion being upon the Notice Paper so long, he must say that the hon. and learned. Gentleman had shown that there was more in the question than many people imagined. The principal point to which he had drawn attention was one worthy of the attention of the Government. There was no doubt the practice complained of came into vogue as one of the many means of raising money when they wanted money to carry on the French War, and he believed it had continued from that time to the present. He was not prepared, however, to give a decided opinion as to whether it was desirable to continue the present system, still he must say it was a question well worthy of consideration of the Government whether they should continue to allow medicines over which they had no control, and had no means of ascertaining what the ingredients were, to be sold with the Government stamp upon them, and thus appear to give a guarantee that the ingredients were fit and suitable for public use. The hon. and learned Member had done good service in pressing that point; and if the labels were to be continued, he should be glad, personally, if something could be added to show that there was no guarantee, and that the duty represented by the stamp was imposed purely for fiscal purposes. He should also like to see the question carried still further, for he was doubtful whether it was right to allow mixtures of this kind, containing poisons, to be sold as medicines, without being labelled in the same way as poisons were required to be labelled, so as to indicate, at least, the extent to which they were poisonous. Upon these two points he was quite in sympathy with the speech of his hon. and learned Friend opposite. He could not, however, make any promise as to what the Government would do, and could only express a hope that the matter would be fully considered by them, and that some better system would be adopted than that which was now in force.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.