HC Deb 16 July 1941 vol 373 cc676-83

No person shall sell or advertise under a fancy proprietary name any preparation having essentially the same composition as preparations listed in the current editions of the British Pharmacopoeia or of the British Pharmaceutical Codex.—[Sir E. Graham-Little.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sir Ernest Graham-Little (London University)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This new Clause follows a recommendation made in the report of the Select Committe of 1914 that fancy names for recognised drugs be subject to regulation. The origin of that recommendation was the mischief which has followed the circulation of names, which the committee call fancy names, but which are really trade names for simple drugs. These drugs are sold under fancy names to the public at prices very much in excess of the charges made for the drugs when sold under their proper names. Let me give instances. The drug known widely as aspirin is a chemical composition which has a well-defined and chemical name, acetylsalicylic acid. That is the proper name for the drug. The term "aspirin" has gained a wider acceptance, because it is much more simple to use. Its cost is 2½d. an ounce, but it is sold to the public under two widely advertised trade names at 2s. 6d. and 2s. 2d. an ounce respectively. Another widely used and advertised product is the drug known as phenobarbitome. The technical name for the substance which forms the basis of the drug is diethylmalonylurea. The cost of that drug in the British Pharmacopoeia is 2s. 6d. It is sold under the names of "Luminal" and "Gardenal" at 10s. 4d. and 9s. 6d. respectively. The drug sold under the fancy name, therefore, costs nearly four times as much as the drug which is supplied in the ordinary way by properly qualified chemists.

An important consideration is that drugs prescribed in the British Pharmacopoeia have to obey strict regulations defining composition, purity, and so on, but no such guarantee is required for products sold under fancy names. The extent of this abuse may be judged by one simple fact. The thick book which I hold in my hand, "The Pharmaceutical Codex," contains 800 items of proprietary medicines which have the same composition as the official preparations of the British Pharmacopoeia. The preamble to the list points out that owing to consideration of space only a small fraction of the patent medicines is included. Eight hundred substances are thus sold under fancy names at prices which are very much greater than the cost of production justifies.

The reason for the delay which has taken place in carrying out the recommendation of the 1914 Committee may be found in the fact that large profits are made in the sale of these products with fancy names. Efforts have been made to instruct the public by simple literature on this point, and about two years ago a small book was produced by the Professor of Pharmacology in Edinburgh University. It was one of a series of shall booklets sold for 6d. which were an exposéof the constitution of some of these medicines. The first result of the publication of that pamphlet was a libel action which was set in motion against the author and publisher. The publishers were forced out of business by the action, and the book has now gone out of print. I do not think that the sums which are spent on advertising by the companies which sell these medicines are realised. Statements have been made recently that one big combine dealing with nervous medicines spent £1,000,000 in 1938 on Press advertisements. I am sorry to say that the medical Press is guilty of imprudent and improper behaviour by accepting that kind of advertisment

. The statement is made also that in a year the "British Medical Journal" receives many thousand pounds for advertisements of proprietary medicines. Both the public and medical practitioners are affected in this connection. A general medical practitioner, who is a very busy man, sees these advertisements in the journals of his profession as well as in the daily Press and is unintentionally influenced in choosing one of these preparations, which may be four times as expensive as the ordinary drugs of which it is composed. Some few years ago the National Medical Association compiled a formulary for the use of panel practitioners in which they made a selection, not by any means complete, of drugs which were identical with patent medicines, and the practitioner was urged to read that little list and to choose the pharmacopoeia preparation in preference to the fancy preparation.

Let the Committee consider what that would mean in the saving of expense. The drug fund of the National Health Insurance scheme is a very important fund. If the practitioner uses drug A, which costs 2½d., while another practitioner uses preparation B, which costs 2s. 6d., and the use of B is multiplied many times, it is obvious that that important fund is being misused. There are no means of censoring, or even effective measures for dealing with, the practitioner who uses the proprietary medicines. I think that is one important reason for accepting this new Clause. It was hoped at the beginning of this year that a new formulary for war would be prepared for the use of practitioners, and the Chief Medical Officer of the Ministry of Health was engaged with a committee in preparing such a formulary, but nothing has happened up to the present so far as I know, though the committee saw no difficulty in regulating this very great abuse of which I have spoken. I am not a skilled Parliamentary draftsman, and I do not know whether the terms of this new Clause meet with the approval of the Minister, but it would be open to him to amend them in any way he thinks fit, and I hope that he will take advantage of this effort to remedy what has been a great abuse.

Mr. Benson (Chesterfield)

I am not quite certain about the scope of this new Clause. The hon. Member mentioned aspirin. I think I am right in saying that aspirin was the name given to the drug by those who developed aspirin. What I wish to know is how far his Clause would go in preventing a manufacturing chemist who developed a new drug from giving it a name.

Sir E. Graham-Little

My point is that when a drug is included in the Pharmaceutical Index it is a very well-known drug, and it is the misnaming of well known drugs which I wish to prevent. As regards aspirin, it is true that aspirin was the trade name given to a German patent some years ago, but that patent has long expired, and the word "aspirin" has made a fancy appeal to the public and pharmacists, who prefer it to the long chemical name which I have mentioned.

Rear-Admiral Beamish (Lewes)

I wish to support this Clause, and though I do so with some diffidence as regards technical points, I have no diffidence as regards the principle of the Clause. I presume the reason why the principle of this Clause has not been applied before is that it would have had such a serious effect upon the profits of the patent medicine trade, but that does not seem to be any sufficient reason for not taking action. The public have a right to be enlightened on these matters, they have a right to be educated about them, and above all they have a right to the protection which this House can provide. I realise that the power of suggestion is tremendous, and that, whatever we may do, when the cheaper medicine is placed alongside a proprietary preparation the acute salesmen will still manage to sell the more expensive article. None the less, I stick to the point that the public have a right to expect enlightenment and protection from this House. Having read this Clause I took the trouble to inquire into some of the proprietary medicines which are being sold. Two of the things which I looked up were disinfectants of a very simple kind, no doubt based upon carbolic acid in some form or another. They are sold under special proprietary names. Their description is, to my mind, intolerable. In one case there are no fewer than thirty-two letters in a single word describing the disinfectant.

The Deputy-Chairman (Colonel Clifton Brown)

I must remind the hon. and gallant Member that we discussed this question at length on Clause 6, and that this new Clause is somewhat limited in its scope.

Rear-Admiral Beamish

I agree that I was getting outside the terms of the Clause, and will say no more except to point out that the object of the Clause is the protection and enlightenment of the public and that I support it for those reasons.

Captain Sir Ian Fraser (Lonsdale)

I would beg the Committee to consider the consequences of this new Clause, but before I do that may I try to answer one pf the points made by the hon. Member for the University of London (Sir E. Graham-Little)? He spoke of remedies in the Pharmacopoeia being worth 2½d. an ounce and of similar remedies being sold as proprietary medicines at 2s. 6d. an ounce, but I think he was comparing the wholesale price of the drug, unprepared, perhaps even unpacked, with the retail price of the drug as packed or made up in a manner which suits the public taste. If allowance is made for the cost of preparation, for the cost of packing and for the cost of advertising, the figures are not so unreasonable as he would make them appear to be by taking the two extremes.

May I elaborate the point brought out about aspirin? This medicine k properly called acetyl-salicylic acid. Before the last war, a German firm advertised it under the name "aspirin," and they made the name well known. In some parts of the world the word "aspirin" is still a free name and may be used by anybody, while in other parts of the world it may be protected in some way. Until 1932, aspirin was, in fact, a fancy name, the very thing which my hon. Friend says we must not allow. In 1932 the authorities who compose the Pharmacopoeia realised that this fancy name had been adopted into the language, and they recognised the name. Overnight, a name which the hon. Gentleman thinks should not have been fit for anyone to use became something which he, as a medical man, would laud and approve, because it is in the book.

How can one possibly say which names, invented by manufacturers, it is true, in order to attract public custom, may or may not come to stand in the public mind for well-known articles, if they are appropriate names? Why should they be ruled out in favour of some unknown and unpronounceable names? I suggest that, however good the motive of my hon. Friend, his proposed new Clause is impracticable.

Mr. Spens (Ashford)

I would draw the attention of the Committee to my view that the proposed new Clause, as drafted, would go a very long way to repeal the Trade Marks Act. People who market drugs and medicines in some way that has not been thought of before are entitled to give them a fancy name, to register them under that name and to adopt a trade mark in respect of them, so that they and they alone are allowed to sell them. If the editor of the British Pharmacopoeia should put a description of a particular compound into that very valuable book, the proposed new Clause would declare that the persons who had the right to sell that drug under the fancy name should, thereafter, no longer be allowed to sell it under that name. That may or may not be the right thing to do, but it raises a very big question of principle which, I respectfully submit, cannot be made part of the law of the land by a small Clause added to a Bill at the end of the Committee stage.

Mr. E. Brown

I had proposed to point out to the Committee that this Clause went a very long way. I told the House on Second Reading that one of my difficulties was not that people wanted the Bill to do less, but that they wanted it to do a great deal more. This innocent looking proposal would make this Measure into a new Bill. It would permit certain things to be done which are entirely against Clause 7, to which the Committee has already agreed and which embodies the agreement arrived at, after long consultation and as a result of the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer last year. I advise the Committee not to accept the proposed new Clause. Not only does it not do what has been suggested, but it would be extremely difficult to enforce in its present technical terms. Take, for example, the expression "essentially the same composition." I would ask medical men how much argument there would have to be before they could reach an agreed meaning of those words.

I appreciate the desire of my two hon. Friends to promote education and enlightenment, but I would ask their consideration of what we are trying to do by the Bill. I would remind the Committee that we are nearing the end of the Committee stage of what has been one of the most contentious issues in our public life for 25 years, and has been argued inside and outside this House. We have reached a very large measure of agreement upon it. One of my hon. Friends based his argument upon a recommendation of the Select Committee of 1912–14. It is true there was a proposal to ban fancy proprietary names, but that Committee did not recommend disclosure. This has only now become possible, and it has altered the whole outlook on this question. I appreciate the point put by my hon. Friends, but I regard the Bill as a first step, and I want it to be a sound step. I do not want to accept any proposal which might make the Bill unworkable. I hope, in view of my statement, that my hon. Friend who moved this Motion will be ready to withdraw it.

Sir E. Graham-Little

I suppose I must withdraw it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.