Natalie Haynes: Warning: the wording on this medicine will drive you to drink

Share
Related Topics

Every few months, a science story appears which is so totally misunderstood that mild-mannered scientists take off their lab coats, flex their biceps and gently explain that percentages don't actually work that way, so no, everyone isn't about to die of E.coli, not even if they lick a goat and don't wash their hands.

And, reassuringly, there is the occasional reversal of fortune, when a story suggests that some scientists (not the ones I know, obviously, before they throw a Bunsen burner at me) have such a poor understanding of words that they shouldn't be allowed to write anything, ever. So yesterday saw the announcement that medicine labels needed to be made clearer, because people have trouble understanding them.

Theo Raynor, professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Leeds, carried out the research which has prompted the suggested changes. "Avoid alcoholic drink" was one of the problem phrases. Apparently, some people think this means that they should limit their alcoholic drink, rather than avoid it. It will be changed to read, "Do not drink alcohol while taking this medicine", which is, according to Prof Raynor, "far clearer".

And I'm sure he's right – it is far clearer, if you are dealing with someone who assumes the phrase "avoid like the plague" means "embrace like a long-lost brother". Or that "tax avoidance" means "paying all the tax in the world, and then some". For everyone else, and I think that we can assume that means everyone who wasn't in their research group, it is markedly less clear. "Do not drink alcohol while taking this medicine" is a time-limited instruction. One could easily read it to mean that so long as you don't actually swig down the pills with a bottle of cooking brandy, that's fine. Actually, give it five minutes and you can probably crack open the meths. Similarly with his other, clearer instructions. "Do not take indigestion remedies at the same time of day as this medicine" will become "Do not take indigestion remedies two hours before or after you take this medicine". Again, this offers a time-specific warning: presumably you could take indigestion remedies one hour before or after the medicine. Or 15 minutes before. Or at the same time as.

There are often, as scientists know, exceptions which test any reasonable theory. But what are the chances that Prof Raynor's team accidentally made up a research group out of all of them? How did they manage to find a roomful of people who were genuinely baffled by the phrase "Do not stop taking this medicine except on your doctor's advice", but for whom the clouds of mystery parted when it was changed to "Warning: Do not stop taking this medicine unless your doctor tells you to stop"?

And, presuming that this wasn't a cruel hoax, perpetrated on the scientists by the sniggering practical jokers of Leeds, how do those people make it through the average day? How has any of them survived for long enough to be at risk of injuring themselves by taking medicine in the wrong way? Didn't they already get run over when they saw a sign which said "Give way" and thought, "That doesn't say, 'Stop here in case a car hits you. Move only when there are no cars', so I can just saunter straigh-aargh!"?

Like so much public language in this country, medicine bottles are a testament to our collective brevity and common sense. "Avoid alcoholic drink" is succinct and accurate. If you choose to read it as "Why not have a chaser with that penicillin?" then the consequences of that are, frankly, the harsh reward for not paying attention at school. Or in the world in general. It is only when experts decide that the ordinary person is baffled by plain language that we end up drowning under management-speak, gibberish and inelegant phrasing. "Take three times a day with meals" means exactly what it says. Can't we rebel against the new labels and keep things that way?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Analyst - (Active Directory, Support, London)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst - (Active Di...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, VBA)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition