When I go to my local chemist, I trust that what they sell me works: after all it’s the same place that I get my prescriptions and health advice from. But how can I be sure that these products stand up to their claims?
Well, according to our latest research, I can’t. We found that some of our best-loved brands – such as Benylin chesty and tickly cough syrups – just don’t have the evidence base to prove they work, and other products have much cheaper alternatives. So what’s going on?
To give some background, before medicines are approved for use, they go through clinical trials and are licensed. But before granting a licence, the regulator asks for evidence of acceptable quality, safe use and efficacy for the conditions the product claims to treat.
Yet, in the case of cough syrup, a review by the Cochrane Collaboration (the gold standard) concluded:
‘This lack of evidence of effectiveness also has implications for the regulatory bodies and brings into question how these products can continue to be promoted using language that implies that their effectiveness is not in doubt.’
So we asked the manufacturers to show us their evidence that their products actually work, and in some cases, they declined to do so. The trade body, the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, said it’s because they didn’t want to give competitors ‘commercially sensitive’ data.
Although manufacturers have invested in research and new product development it’s rare for over-the-counter medicines to have patent protection once launched. What’s more is the European Medicines Agency encourages data sharing for pharmaceutical drugs and routinely publishes the clinical data submitted by companies.
Spot the difference
Our research also picked up on products that have cheaper alternatives. For example, Combogesic and Nuromol can be fairly expensive painkillers combining Ibuprofen and Paracetamol in one tablet. But, at 25p and 29p per tablet respectively, you could combine two generic ibuprofen and paracetamol tablets from up to 2.8p per tablet for an equivalent dose.
Another product to look closely at is Otrivine nasal spray. You can buy an Otrivine spray for allergy relief, another for sinusitis and a third for nasal decongestion. But the small print on the back of the packet would tell you that all three are exactly the same!
Otrivine’s manufacturer told us that these products marketed for different conditions to help you select ‘the product most suited to your needs’. Although the regulator says it’s in line with the product’s licensing, we think it’s misleading and you could waste money buying all three.
And if you’re in the market for the Otex and Earex Advance ear drops that our expert panel looked at, the wider evidence shows that they work. However, it’s likely that cheaper alternatives including saline, water, and olive or almond oil would work just as well.
We think these firms should be more transparent and share their data so we can see if medicines and other health products are really worth our money.
So have you questioned the claims of any over-the-counter medicines? Should manufacturers be more upfront about their product claims?