HL Deb 10 November 1954 vol 189 cc1237-43

2.42 p.m.

LORD CROOK rose to ask whether the attention of Her Majesty's Government has been called to the Report of the Birmingham city analyst as to the treatment by remote postal diagnosis offered by public advertisement in respect of skin diseases stated to be "stubborn and deep seated in the tissues" and to the swindling of gullible members of the public therefrom; whether there are any present powers by legislation or regulation to deal with the advertisers making such claims; and whether it is possible for some action to be taken in the public interest. The noble Lord said: My Lords, first may I apologise to your Lordships for detaining you, on an important day when foreign affairs are to be debated, by putting a Question of the type which I now ask. I may say that the Question was put down some considerable time before we knew that there was to be major Business on the Order Paper for to-day.

This matter is to me, as I think it will be to your Lordships, one of great importance. In the few minutes for which I propose to speak, I will ask your Lordships to look at the facts. They are these. A number of people have, over recent months, been replying to advertisements appearing in the public Press, in theatre programmes and the like, for alleged cures for various diseases; and the case dealt with by the Birmingham city analyst is one, in my submission, of great gravity. It is that of a man who, having suffered for some time with a severe skin disease, became more or less desperate and replied to an advertisement. In response to a request from the persons advertising—who live under a very grandiloquent title—he proceeded to give a description of his disease and posted it to them at their address some thirty miles away From a perusal of the information which he, as an ordinary sufferer, sent to them, they were able to diagnose the exact nature of the serious skin disease from which he suffered, and to tell him that if he spent six guineas on a four weeks' course of treatment they would be able to cure him.

This man duly sent six guineas, and he received what was said to be a course of treatment especially suited to meet the needs of his serious complaint. This included a liquid mixture for him to consume, some pills for him to consume at other times, some powders for him to take between whiles, and lotion and ointment for him to put on. At the end of three weeks he was very much worse; his trouble was spreading all over his body. He wrote to the people in question and said so. He was then told that it was clear that his condition was of such long standing that the trouble had become "stubborn and deep-seated in the tissues"—a diagnosis which my medical colleagues on both sides of the House would find it most difficult to make without a most extended examination of the patient, but these people managed to make it by post, from a distance of thirty miles. They told the man that continued treatment would be necessary, and to get this continued treatment, which would bring about an undoubted cure, it was necessary for him to send only another 33s. For this he was sent a complete repetition of what he had received before, but to make it certain that he became a loyal subject of theirs the prescribers sent him a bonus in the form of a box of brown ointment.

The medicines, lotions and potions were found on analysis by the Birmingham city analyst to be very ordinary drugs and medicines of the type which the medical profession prescribe in the early stages of complaints similar to the one from which the patient was supposed to be suffering, and they were all inexpensive. The mixture was a 3 per cent. solution of potassium iodide in water to which some red colouring had been added, the pills were essentially potassium nitrate and capsicum, and the powders consisted of boric acid—which is on sale, I believe, at 4d. per pound. The scalp lotion consisted of a 32 per cent. solution of soap in spirit. No one would say that would hurt anyone, but no one could claim very much else for it. The scalp ointment contained 3.2 per cent. sulphur in a soft paraffin base. The special bonus ointment that was sent to the man consisted also of a soft paraffin base to which a little tar was added to give a very efficient smell, if nothing else. The total cost of the whole treatment, according to the report of the Birmingham city analyst to the Birmingham City Council, was one shilling or a little more.

The persons who issued this advertisement claim to do what no medical member of this House, or of the other place, or of the whole profession, would dream of doing. Indeed, so far as I know, our great medical profession would not dream of claiming to do as much, even after extensive examination of a skin disease. I have myself suffered somewhat from this kind of trouble over a period of years, and I think that none of the medical profession would dream of diagnosing, even after examination, with anything like one-tenth of the accuracy with which these people claim to have diagnosed this man's trouble by post. These people are, in fact, quacks of the worst kind, advertising even in defiance of the code which has been set down by the Proprietary Medicines Association. I am told that in addition to the control exercised by the Pharmacy and Medicines Act and the Food and Drugs Act, the Proprietary Medicines Association has since 1933 organised a voluntary system of control. The Association in question, I am told, represents the manufacturers of proprietary medicines. They have produced a code of standards of advertising, practice, and they condemn advertising of this kind. More recently, the British Code of Standards, drawn up by the seven organisations which represent proprietary medicine manufacturers—I should like to say that I have no particular axe to grind for any of these bodies; I merely report the facts to your Lordships—has set down standards for advertising agents and advertisers in general, and this particular firm's advertising is in conflict even with that standard. So far as I know, the position regarding the registration of all medical persons does not allow, as the Birmingham city analyst suggested in his report, any action to be taken against these people, because they are not registered medical practitioners. On the other hand, we ought to be able to do something to deal with this kind of thing.

I do not need to be told by the noble Earl who is to reply that, without doubt, people who answer advertisements of this sort in a State which has a National Health Service of the kind we have are fools easily parted from their money. It remains true that this House and the other place from time to time have to provide legislation and Her Majesty's Government have to provide the necessary action to save fools in this country from being parted from their money and made the victims of quacks and those who would batten upon members of the working-class. Therefore, while not expecting the impossible from Her Majesty's Government, in view of all the difficulties, I have tabled this Question, if only to draw attention to the matter, in the hope that Her Majesty's Government may find it possible at least to express sympathy with the point raised, and, if it is at all possible, to refer to those who could take action such suggestions of action as may be possible.

2.51 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support in the strongest possible way the words which have come from my noble friend Lord Crook. I am familiar with the case to which he refers. May I say how much we owe for our information in these matters to city analysts as a class, and to Mr. Bagnall, the city analyst of Birmingham, in particular? Since, as my noble friend points out, the Pharmacy and Medicines Act, 1941, allows this ramp to go on more or less unchecked, would it not be possible, before the Food and Drugs Bill now before Parliament becomes an Act, for Her Majesty's Government to put something therein which would call a halt, at least in some measure, to this evil?

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, may I say at the outset that Her Majesty's Government have full sympathy with the people concerned and consider the whole of this episode most reprehensible? The report to which the noble Lord refers has been brought to the notice of Her Majesty's Government, but the factual information it contains is not sufficient to support the opinion that an offence has been committed under the various Acts which deal with this matter, or to say whether or not there would be grounds for civil action. As your Lordships may know, there are provisions under the Pharmacy and Medicines Act, 1941, restricting the sales of medicine by unauthorised persons, and under that Act, and the Venereal Diseases Act, 1917, and the Cancer Act, 1939, prohibiting the advertising of medicines for specified diseases. At the moment, additional legislation is not contemplated by my right honourable friend.

As the noble Lord, Lord Crook, mentioned, there is in existence an excellent code, which is known as the "British Code of Standards in relation to the Advertising of Medicines and Treatments." That code has already produced a large reduction in unsatisfactory and improper forms of advertising, and in point of fact it strictly lays down that there should be no advertising which offers to make diagnoses by post or offers treatment by post. It is a simple code, which is very well laid out. The Annual Report for 1952–53, which I have here, says that this particular disease, psoriasis, was included in Section 3 of the list of diseases for the treatment of which no claim should be made for any medicine, other than for the relief of pain or irritation. I think your Lordships will agree with me that this form of self-discipline by the advertising trade and pharmaceutical manufacturers is probably one of the most valuable forms of protection the public could have.

As the noble Lord, Lord Crook, has said, it is not much help to the man who finds himself aggrieved to say that only a fool would do what he has done. I do say, however—and I think the noble Lord would agree with me—that it has been more than well publicised that we have a National Health Service; and I should like to put it on record that we feel that people are slightly to blame if they get into these muddles instead of going to their family doctor and saying what is wrong with them and getting treatment from him or from their local hospital or clinic. After all, if people can get proper treatment under the National Health Service but go off and look at these little advertisements which appear in all kinds of obscure publications, and even in theatre programmes and things like that, they begin to ask for trouble, even if they do not get it. I assure the noble Lord that Her Majesty's Government feel exactly as he does about this matter and take a very sympathetic view of his plea.

2.56 p.m.


My Lords, may I venture to ask the noble Earl, in view of what he has just said, whether or not it is desirable to set up an inquiry into the advertisement which is given encouraging people to take all kinds of miscellaneous drugs. We see them not only in obscure papers but in many reputable papers, and on the hoardings, and it is quite incongruous that, with the National Health Service in existence, this kind of thing should be done. It might injure the health of people who have been attracted by advertisements which say that what is advertised relieves pain, or does this, that or the other. Not all the advertisements are such gross cases as that mentioned by my noble friend Lord Crook, but I have thought for a long while that the time will surely come when we should set up an inquiry into the whole question of limiting the advertising which may be allowed to firms which are in business for business' sake only and are not concerned with curing—firms which are concerned only with selling their goods. I would mention, for instance, the various forms of aspirin. For my own part, I do not think these articles should be advertised in the ordinary way at all. I sincerely trust that the noble Earl will find it possible to say that he will give consideration to what I have said.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for his contribution. Of course, as the noble Lord knows, there are very strict rules laid down in the code set up by the various firms themselves as to what they should or should not say about the medicines which they advertise. But I will certainly refer his most interesting remarks to my right honourable friend the Minister of Health.


My Lords, I am not permitted to speak again, but I am sure your Lordships will agree that it would be discourteous of me not to thank the noble Earl for his reply.