Spotlight: 1919. Time for Change

Published on: 3 January 2019

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On 2nd June 1919, interested proprietary medicines manufacturers met to discuss how to respond to the threat of legislation on proprietary medicines advertising. The meeting was addressed by Sir William Glyn-Jones, Chairman of the Proprietary Articles Trade Association, Secretary of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain and former Liberal MP for Stepney. The notes simply record that he spoke on the necessity for an organisation to be established.

The following is his imagined address at that meeting.

IMAGE courtesy of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum

Sir William Samuel Glyn-Jones MP

“Well gentlemen, it is indeed gratifying that so many of you are here today. I see representatives from almost 50 proprietary medicines manufacturers, some of whom are among the most well-established in the country. Such a level of interest is testament to the grave situations facing both the manufacturing industry and the pharmacy profession.

“Speaking as a pharmacist, we need effective remedies to improve the health of the public. We cannot do this without your help. Or at least the help of reputable companies. And therein lies the crux that has brought us here today: not all manufacturers have the interests of the population at heart and some are prone to making outlandish, outrageous and unsubstantiated claims regarding the nature of their products.

“As we are all aware, the British Medical Association has long fought against proprietary medicines. Some ten years ago their publication ‘Secret Remedies: What they cost and what they contain’ caused a scandal in its accusations that many proprietary products contained poisons, or ineffective ingredients and were often vastly overpriced.

“Now, while we must recognise that doctors are, no doubt, partly driven by concern of loss of income to proprietary medicines, when we consider some medicines that are freely available for purchase – and how they are advertised to the public – we must acknowledge that their accusations have considerable merit.

“So much so, that the House of Commons’ Select Committee Report on Patent Medicines of 1914 – published the same day as the outbreak of the Great War – noted that the plethora of available products ‘are of a widely differing character’ with ‘many secret remedies making grossly exaggerated claims of efficacy’ that are ‘put upon the market by ignorant persons and, in many cases, by cunning swindlers who exploit for their own profit the apparently invincible credulity of the public’.

“Gentlemen, you do not consider yourselves cunning swindlers and nor is what you do “a grave and widespread public evil”, as the Select Committee Report would have it. But the harsh truth is that, currently, that is precisely how you may be perceived as there is no means of differentiating your products from that of a lawless pedlar.

“Tomorrow the Ministry of Health comes into being and we can surely expect that they will, in due time, activate the recommendations of the Select Committee Report. This means there will be legislation that governs your products, with the power to prohibit the advertising of a product that does not comply with the law. You can expect strict restrictions around what can be stated within your advertising and for what conditions you may advertise. A fundamental issue for you has been the requirement to divulge your formulae – this will no longer be permitted to remain a secret. Instead there will be a register that details your products’ ingredients, proportions and therapeutic claims – at a mandatory cost to you.

“I say there is an alternative. You must rise above the charlatans. To do this it is a necessity that you put in place a self-regulatory system whereby reputable manufacturers such as yourselves will create a new standard for proprietary medicines. One where the public and healthcare professionals can feel confident of efficacy and reassured as to the validity of claims being made.

“In doing this, in elevating your products above the herd, you may obviate the need for legislation. In coming together as an affiliated group you can protect the public, preserve your industry and elevate the perception of proprietary medicines. Yes, even among the BMA, in time.

“To do this requires the gentlemen within this room to take a leap of faith and to implement something that has never been done before in this country. I call on you to create a robust and rigorous system that reflects the advertising recommendations of the Select Committee. In being seen to put your own house in order, you will be proving beyond doubt that the proprietary medicines industry is a responsible industry and circumventing the need for harsh legislation.

“For patients the benefits will be immeasurable, at last they will be able to differentiate between products that work and those that are no more than mere snake oils. For pharmacists we will have the confidence that we are recommending effective treatments. It is for you to decide how great the benefits will be for you.

“Gentlemen, are you ready for this challenge?”

Whatever he actually said, Glyn-Jones was certainly persuasive as the manufacturers agreed to form a trade association. Two weeks later, on 17 June 1919, the first meeting of the Association of Manufacturers of British Proprietaries (which became PAGB in 1926) was held.

Marianne MacDonald is a journalist, former PAGB employee and consultant to the Consumer Healthcare Industry. She imagined this address to the founding members of PAGB after extensive examination of the PAGB archive.
3 January 2019