Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine and Brexit

As promised, we are taking a break from the Great Med Off series. I’ll be back covering Western and Chinese medicines next time, but today I am going to discuss the issue which is on almost everyone’s mind-Brexit. For the love of God, WHY??? Nobody wants to hear yet another opinion! Also, of course, I can get myself into trouble with some of my patients. Emotions are very high, yet the sequence of events which helped me make up my mind regarding the Brexit question is interesting and is TCM related and that is why I am going to share it with you.
In the early days after David Cameron announced that there was going to be a referendum. I thought that I would vote for remain. To be perfectly honest, like most people, I knew very little about the EU. It was more of an intuition. It has always made sense for me that people should cooperate, share and help each other so why not be in a union with our friends in Europe? Indeed, why not? Well, something has happened during the run up to the referendum which has started me thinking properly. Before I tell you about it I have to give you a bit of background. The struggle of Herbalists against the mainstream medical institution’s attempt at stopping them from practising is hundreds of years old.  Mainstream medicine always viewed the Herbalist community (out of ignorance of course) as a bunch of charlatans. In the old days Herbalists were considered as witches and often ended up in jail or even burned on the stake. Luckily the methods of persecution have changed but not the principle. Mainstream medical science (these days strongly supported by the pharmaceutical industry) relentlessly tries to stop Herbal medicine practice.

Since I started practicing Chinese medicine 24 years ago there have been 3 orchestrated attempts by the Authorities to pass laws regarding the manufacturing, the prescribing, and the use of Herbal medicine. These laws, often camouflaged as public safety concerns, were very clearly designed to devastate the herbal medicine industry and the Herbal medicine practice. The first of those came in the late 90’s-a set of new rules and regulations regarding the manufacturing, the selling and the prescribing of herbal medicines brought in front of Parliament by the Medical Control Agency (MCA). The centre point of this new legislation was that herbal products would no longer be regarded as food supplements.  Instead they would be treated as medicines! The implications of that were huge! It meant that each herbal medicine would have to go through the same testing that new medicines do in order to be approved for use!  This would have completely destroyed the Herbal practice since no herbs would ever be available again. The herbal medicines companies are all very small with a large amount of products (hundreds). Unlike the pharmaceutical companies which are very big companies with a very small amount of products. To test a new product takes years and costs many millions, but it is still worth it for the pharmaceutical companies. They will get their money back on the investment. For the Herbal companies it is of course a complete impossibility! So, faced with the prospect of annihilation, the Herbalist community fought back. Herbalists and their patients wrote to their local MPs, signed petitions, and even went on a demonstration in front of the Houses of Parliament. To everyone’s surprise the Campaign worked. The MPs had a good look at the Bill, realized the problems, and rejected it. The MCA was told to go back to the drawing board and to come back with a more balanced and sensible Bill. This was Democracy in motion!
About 3 years later the MCA came back to Parliament with a new Bill. There were few little changes from the original one. Firstly, the MCA changed its name to the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency). Secondly, they kept it secret and the Herbalists heard of it only about 2 weeks before the vote in Parliament so we had very little time to campaign. Other than these there were very little changes of substance, just cosmetic ones. Again we fought a fast and successful campaign. Common sense and Democracy prevailed again!
The third time the Herbalist community had to face this sort of threat was around 2008. This time we had a real problem. This time the herbs directive came from the EU. There was simply nothing we could do about it. The EU Herbal medicine directive, although not as devastating as the original MCA one, is still a very bad piece of work. It is supposed to offer public protection from rogue medicines and yet it is doing just the opposite. For example: those “take-away” style  Chinese herbal places which sprout up around the town centres are having no problems practicing with the new regulation-and that is despite the many court cases brought against them for using banned Herbs and Pharmaceuticals. At the same time, genuine Herbalists run into trouble and have to seriously find a way to bend the rules just to be able to keep on practicing. Many useful, effective, much loved and 100% safe products had to be stopped. They just disappeared never to come back. A few Herbal companies had to close down. But probably worst of all, courses for Herbalists are now impossible to find. Chinese medicine courses are simply not on offer anymore. It is simply too hard and complicated to practice TCM in the UK in light of the EU Herbs directive. It came into full effect in 2014.
I think what happened is that I heard about yet another of my Herbs suppliers closing down in the run up to the Referendum and that made me start thinking.  The main problem is not with the directive itself (although bad enough) it is with the process. Some bright spark in an office in Brussels set out a directive. There was no consultation, there was not understanding of the situation, problems or needs of the Herbal medicine reality in the UK. We had no chance to have any influence on the process and could not even protest after. I didn’t vote him in and I can’t vote him out. No accountability whatsoever, no consultation, no democracy.
 It’s not just the Herbs directive, this flawed process happens in many other areas of our lives controlled by the EU. If you value democracy then this is very very wrong!  This lightbulb moment made me look a bit more closely at the effects of the EU projects on our lives.
Not far from my Leicester Clinic a big construction project was unfolding. Humberstone Road was having a very welcome facelift. At the end of the street a sign declared: this project is supported by money from the European Union! The initial response to this information is ”Great! We are getting money from the EU to make Leicester look better!” Then I thought again. What is actually happening here? We pay our hard earned tax money to the UK Government. They then pass it to the EU. The EU use it to pay for fancy offices and generous salaries for its workers and then, whatever is left, they send back to the UK for Projects. Which Projects get the left-over money? That is decided by EU Bureaucrats who probably don’t know much about the UK, about its culture, its ways, and its needs. Sorry my dear Remainer friend but this just makes absolutely no sense to me.
The more I looked at it the more convinced I became. The way the EU operates at the moment and, maybe more importantly, the direction it is moving toward is simply not good and is going to end up in tears. I am aware of course that there are some good sides to the Project. As I mentioned earlier I am always for cooperation and support but there is absolutely no need for the obsessive control over Member countries’ rules and internal affairs which is coming from Brussels!!! As demonstrated by the case of the Herbal medicine directive: it doesn’t work and it will gradually cause more unrest in other EU countries!
Please understand that my support for leaving the EU is nothing to do with a hope of getting my herbs back. I know unfortunately this is not going to happen, not in my working lifetime anyway. It is purely about bringing back sovereignty and democracy.
And, one last thing I would like to say to my “Remain” friends: many people born in the UK  who have probably never experienced life anywhere else often don’t appreciate how great this country is. Of course it is not perfect and it has problems the same as everywhere but, nevertheless, it is a great place with great strength, great tradition and great people! It will have no problems with coping, flourishing and fulfilling its potential outside the EU.
And on this positive note we’ll end today’s post. I hope I haven’t upset anyone. Next time, hopefully we’ll be back to proper TCM and Human Health matters!

Dr Ilan Shahor