Safety Packaging for Medicines Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th April 1974.

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4.17 p.m.

Photo of Mrs Jill Knight Mrs Jill Knight , Birmingham, Edgbaston

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it compulsory for all medicines which could be fatal to young children to have childproof opening devices fitted. Every casualty officer in every hospital in Britain knows about the poisoned toddler syndrome. It is a contemporary problem because medicines today are infinitely more potent than ever before. Even 40 years ago some medicines were scarcely more than coloured water, which could do no harm and, thanks be to God and the power of auto-suggestion, often actually did some good. Today adult medicines are strong, effective, potent and almost invariably lethal to children if taken in quantity. They have never been so dangerous, they have never looked more tempting and some have never tasted so nice. One mother in Birmingham turned her back on her toddler for three minutes and the child swallowed a whole bottle of cherry-flavoured cough syrup. It contained enough anti-histamines and soporifics to pole-axe the child into a deep coma.

The Birmingham Evening Mail recently did a survey on accidental poisoning. It found that in 30 days 135 children had to be rushed to hospital suffering from poisoning. The vast majority were under seven years and many were only babies. Of course, with quick action such children are almost always saved. Most do not die but they all have to be treated. The most common treatment is the use of a stomach pump. Such treatment is a horrible experience, and doctors have warned recently that some children suffer long-term psychological disorders after the use of a stomach pump.

The official figure of child poisoning cases per annum is about 30,000 However, there is good reason to suppose that about 20,000 more do not get into the statistics because they do not go to hospital. It appears that instead they are treated by the family doctor. Indeed, some are only suspected poisoning cases. A child is found touching an open bottle and tablets are spilled around it. The mother cannot get the child to give a coherent answer to whether he has swallowed any of the tablets. Even the suspected poisoning cases have to be treated, and often by stomach pump.

The most guilty medicine in the poison stakes is the aspirin. Some 85 per cent. of homes keep aspirins handy. One estimate is that at least five tons of aspirins disappear down British throats every day. They are all taken from bottles that can be unscrewed without the slightest trouble by very small hands.

There are children's aspirins, which are flavoured, which makes them pleasant to taste. One of the best known brands is Angiers Junior Aspirins. The tablets are orange in colour and the bottles contain about 50 tablets. Children's aspirins contain about a quarter of the adult dose. If a young child ate 30 it would be in danger and, indeed, might die as a result.

The next biggest single cause of death is psychotherapeutic drugs—sedatives, tranquillisers and so on. It is estimated that there are 7½ million packs of these in homes at any one time. Iron tablets, which are also commonly used, are also a hazard. I think that the House will accept that something needs to be done.

Several solutions have been suggested. One is the child-proof medicine cabinet, and about one quarter of our homes with children have lockable medicine cabinets, but surveys show that a much smaller proportion are actually used. The medicines which have to be taken regularly are often put in more handy places than the medicine cabinet. Besides, the majority of child poisoning cases happen when the household is disrupted, either by illness or when things are out of the normal position, perhaps because of visitors or father decorating or because mother has had to rush to answer the door.

Another suggested solution is to step up the campaign to educate parents to keep medicines out of a child's way. One slogan in this campaign is, Throw away all old medicines". That is fine and wise as far as it goes, but we now know that it is almost always the medicines currently in use which poison children and not so much the old medicines.

The third solution would be to direct the drug manufacturers to stop making medicines which look nice and taste nice. Like the other two suggested solutions, this is a thoroughly worthwhile idea but it still would not be effective enough to stem the flood of poisoned children into the casualty departments.

The fourth solution is one which I seek to implement in this small Bill. It is that all medicines which could be fatal to children should be packed in childproof or child-resistant containers. Medicines usually either come in bottles or small plastic drums or are individually packed in strip and blister containers made of plastic or foil. All of these could be made difficult or practically impossible for a child to open.

Of course, it will cost money, but however much the total—and I have tried hard to get a clear picture—it cannot be as much as it now costs to treat these sick children. To pack medicines in childproof containers would definitely mean a saving for the taxpayer, although I am more interested in the saving of children from danger, pain and misery.

The Government recently asked the chemists to consider charging for childproof containers where patients asked for them. The chemists turned the suggestion down—for one good reason, one poor reason and one wrong reason. They said that it was wrong to rest the safety of medicines on parents' ability to pay. That was the right reason. Secondly, they were not sure that the containers were really childproof anyway. That was a poor reason, because the United States has proved that it is not beyond the wit of man to produce containers which will totally baffle normal children, and has developed about 60 different ones.

Thirdly, the chemists said that they thought it best to continue with the campaign to educate public interest. That was the wrong reason. We can never do sufficient campaigning to ensure that all parents in all homes at all times will obey the campaign. A household gets disrupted; Tommy learns to climb the shelves; mother forgets to put the bottle back in its right place. A child needs to get hold of a bottle only once.

I am sure that the answer lies in legislation about safety packaging of medicines. The United States has had such legislation since 1970, and it is being extended because its efficacy has been proved. Statistics from the United States and Canada show substantial reductions —90 per cent. and 75 per cent. in two instances—resulting from the mass use of safety containers.

Of course, there are problems—for example, the need to consider elderly or arthritic people who have difficulty in opening some tops now. But I am sure that these problems can be ironed out, as they have been elsewhere. Again, some children are poisoned not by medicines but by things like household cleaners, turpentine, and so on. I am confining the Bill's provisions to medicines because one cannot deal with everything in a Ten-Minute Bill, and in any case far more children are poisoned by medicines than by anything else. In the first two days of the Birmingham survey, out of 15 children who were saved 13 had got hold of boxes or bottles of medicine.

The Medicines Commission was consulted on this matter a year ago and set up a working party which will, according to the Secretary of State for Social Services in March, be reporting shortly. This Bill gives the working party the opportunity to do so. The matter is urgent and brooks no delay. Each day we wait, about 130 children will be poisoned. Dr. D. H. S. Reid, spokesman on poisoning for the British Paediatric Association, has written: Whereas the law provides for the safety of children on the roads, at work and at play, the same law turns a blind eye, with the connivance and collusion of the drug and chemical industry at all levels, wholesale and distributive, to the situation. Efforts to secure a change in the law in this country by paediatricians, the Press, the Consumers Association, Members of Parliament and other bodies, have been resisted by successive governments, and the results in Britain have been depressing and discouraging. I believe that the time has come when action cannot be further delayed, and I ask the House, in the name of countless suffering children, to clear the way for this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Jill Knight, Mr. Harold Gurden, Mr. E. S. Bishop, Mr. Clement Freud, Mr. Philip Holland, and Mr. Jeffrey Rooker.