Bad Medicine

First there were the quacks. Then came the mass manufacturers of substandard herbal drugs and cosmetics. Cashing in on the goodwill of traditional systems of medicine and taking consumers for a ride has never been so easy. In the process, however, business is destroying natural resources. The absence of market regulation is costing the earth. At stake is the future of rare herbs and medicinal plants. And a tradition in health care. JITENDRA VERMA & INDIRA KHURANA report

Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

Bad Medicine

-- Gresham revisited
Demand for herbal drugs has surged. Riding the crest of the wave are spurious and adulterated medicines

the market for herbal medicines and cosmetics is booming. Herbal products have flooded urban markets in India and are being exported. Advertisements of 'ayurvedic' preparations in newspapers and magazines and on television vie for attention. 'We can cure anything,' they claim, 'from acne to consumption and cancer.' But what ails the system that is consuming more and more resources? Has anything changed, or are these companies run by quacks in a new guise?

Consumers, tired of the limitations of allopathy and ready to believe in 'tried and tested' systems, are increasingly turning to herbal products. But clinical and field trials are not carried out on most of these products. There are no warnings on labels about the side-effects, no mention of the date of manufacture and of expiry, and sometimes no recommended dosages. Consequently, the 'tried-and-tested' becomes a trying and testing experience for the consumer.

On the other hand, manufacturers are having a field day. The market for herbal products, as against that for the raw material, is supply-led. Consumers are promised the moon by advertisements of products that were not meant to be 'curative' at all. The very philosophy of Ayurveda revolves around prevention. Moreover, in the absence of market regulation and standardisation of products, substandard preparations are being sold. In the past, vaidyas prepared and prescribed ayurvedic preparations themselves. Their efficacy was a question of self-esteem and reputation. For mass manufacturers, short-term gain from such a large market appears to be the only guiding principle.

Even more alarmingly for the nation, the increased demand for plants has placed a heavy strain on resources. Populations of some herbs are being rapidly annihilated. Poor conservation practices, in turn, are affecting supply. Adulteration of rare plant products has become common in the domestic market. As a result, genuine and quality herbal products are becoming scarcer. It's Gresham's law in its new avatar: the bad medicine drives out the good.

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