While health ministers lose sleep over the NHS drugs bill, which is rising by about 11 per cent a year, manufacturers and salesmen are delighted at similar rises in demand for a vast range of 'alternative products' - particularly herbal concoctions and supplements - to treat a range of self- curing conditions.
Mintel, the market research agency, confirms fastest growth in herbal and homeopathic remedies, worth approximately pounds 32m and pounds 16.3m respectively. The herbal market, which includes licensed herbal medicines and non-licensed 'food supplements', has put on 50 per cent in five years. The homeopathic market has doubled in the same period.
Slowly but surely, herbal remedies are becoming accepted - albeit a little grudgingly by mainstream medicine. The British Medical Association will publish its report on alternative medicine this month. In its last report in 1986 it was unequivocal about the place of herbal medicines; seven years on, it is expected to be more enthusiastic about their appropriate use.
Commercially, the value of these remedies are being recognised, too. This summer, Boots will provide in- house training to its sales staff in herbal and homeopathic products to deal with a growing number of queries. It is planning designated counters for herbal medicines instead of displaying them with vitamins and food supplements.
'The increase in people seeking information on homeopathic and herbal remedies led us to conduct our own research, and we see the demand is bubbling away there,' said Jenny Tompkins, Boots' healthcare spokeswoman.
'We are seeing an increase in all types of self-medication, but we have a long way to go in catching up with the popularity of homeopathic medicine in some European countries, such as France and the Netherlands.' She said the Dutch spent pounds 5.42 per head a year on homeopathic medicine, compared with 21p in the United Kingdom.
The huge market in vitamins and minerals, usually seen as a means of maintaining health rather curing illness, continues a steady annual increase of about 5 per cent, totalling pounds 81m at the end of last year.
But the British are loath to give up the benefits of science altogether. Drug delivery through the skin is one of the latest technologies and the market for nicotine patches to help people stop smoking has raced away. In two years the nicotine market, including nicotine gum, has doubled to pounds 21.8m - more than we spend on hay fever preparations ( pounds 18.3m) or pain-relieving creams and sprays ( pounds 17.2m).
The enormous popularity of self- medication, particularly of 'natural remedies', has many causes, say the experts, ranging from better publicity and packaging to resistance to 'medical' drugs because of fears of side effects and the ever-increasing cost of NHS prescriptions. Branded medicines sold at pharmacies and grocers rose 11.5 per cent in 1992 with the market for products such as mouthwash and evening primrose oil growing by 21 per cent, and indigestion remedies by 14 per cent.
Even laxatives saw a modest increase of 3.6 per cent, according to the Proprietary Association of Great Britain. 'People worry about their health more when times are hard. They will take more indigestion tablets, more pain killers and more remedies to relieve stress and strain. They don't want to bother the doctors with minor ailments,' according to Tim Astill, director of the National Phamaceutical Association (NPA), which represents independent pharmacists.
'When everything is going well people are less anxious but we do not attempt to sell medicines, of whatever kind, to people who do not need them,' he said.
There is no doubt that the over-the- counter market is seen as highly profitable. The NPA, which initiated the 'Ask Your Pharmacist' campaign, is opposed to '60 feet of shelving' of medicines and remedies in supermarkets but welcomes in-shop pharmacies with trained staff. Safeway, Tesco and Asda have their own or franchise pharmacies, Mr Astill said.
'We don't much like the idea of selling branded medicines as other products, offering discounts, for example, if you buy five bottles. No medicines must ever be sold in a way that leads people to believe that they are ordinary articles for sale,' he said.
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