RESTRICTION OF MEDICINES "IN YOUR OWN INTEREST"

 

(November 1995)

 

You are about to be deprived of yet another desirable chemical, or at least if you are able to get it, it will not be legal. This time there is a particularly thin disguise to cover the real reason for banning it: that it might really do people some good, that it might make them feel god, that it might make them less dependent on the medical profession, and consequently a lot of people might want it.

 

"The Government's Medicines Control Agency has written to all suppliers ordering them to stop selling the hormone [melatonin] after ruling that the substance requires a drug licence. The Agency has expressed concern about the explosive growth in sales of melatonin, believing it will become increasingly popular ..." (Financial Times, 14 October 1995)

 

It is actually a principle of modern paternalism that if you want something you should be stopped from having it. One of the excuses of the medical profession for refusing to prescribe any drugs that do not have unpleasant side-effects, and may indeed have a feel-good factor, is that people might like them too much and start trying to obtain them for themselves when the medical condition they were prescribed to cure had cleared up. Therefore only medicines that have the traditional nastiness, as in "take your medicine", are prescribed by doctors. The ones that would cure the ailment just as well or better, but make you feel good while doing it, are not prescribed. This, nowadays, makes it almost impossible for any but the terminally ill to get adequate pain relief, and even the terminally ill get it only as and when their doctor sees fit to prescribe it.

 

Now of course I have never had melatonin and I have no information about either its benefits or its possible side-effects. But I think I know something about the oppressive mentality of modern society. So I am not surprised that they should wish to suppress something that a great many people might want, because they might believe, however erroneously, that it was being good for them in a very radical way. 

 

Modern legislators might also consider the case that people who are unable to get what they really need in terms of drugs might be driven to other drugs which are more harmful but legal, such as alcohol, tobacco, and whatever their doctor will give them on prescription.

 

Apparently melatonin is a hormone that promotes sleep. It has been bought by insomniacs and frequent flyers wishing to fight jet lag. But the Medicines Control Agency is said to be concerned about the growth in its popularity in the US, where claims have been made that melatonin can reverse the effects of ageing. The MCA has now decided that melatonin is `medicinal by function' and hence, while as yet there is no evidence that it is unsafe, the MCA argues that it should be subjected to tests to find out whether it can be regarded as unsafe in any way. I expect some reason for restricting its availability will be found. Most foods are harmful to some people if taken in excess, and I expect that that only reason that carrots are still available without a prescription is that no-one has got very excited about them, or claimed that they might cure cancer.

 

Probably many are vaguely resentful at being deprived of the chemicals they would wish to have, at least without breaking the law, but the protest against oppressive paternalism is unorganised. Isn't it time it became organised?