Over the counter medicines

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 71 over-the-counter medicine brands, like painkillers and cough and cold remedies.

We also look at animal testing and tax avoidance, shine a spotlight on the ethics of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying over-the-counter medicine:

  • Is the medicine generic? Buying branded drugs gives you less choice who you buy from and are also more expensive. See if you can find it being sold under the name of the active ingredient. 
     

  • Is the medicine made by a company which does reasonably well in independent ratings of drug trial transparency and investment in research into drugs for low-income countries? See our analysis below for more information.

Best Buys

No companies reach the level necessary to be eligible for the Best Buy label.

Recommended buys

Our recommended companies are Diomed Developments, Lanes Health, Rohto Pharmaceutical Co, Perrigo and Strada as they have fewer negative stories against their names than the others. They make the following popular products:

Painkiller tablets: Solpadeine (codeine & paracetamol), Galpharm and Hedex painkillers, Care ibuprofen. Co-op painkillers come out as the best of the supermarket brands.

Pain-relieving creams and rubs: 4head, Ralgex, Deep Heat, Ibuleve, Radian B, Movelat.

For Cough, and Cold Remedies: Olbas decongestant, Galpharm, Jakemans throat sweets, Buttercup Bronchostop, Care, Covonia and Allens cough mixtures

For Indigestion Remedies: Care, Setlers and Galpharm

Of the major drug multinationals, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) scores best in the impartial external ethical rankings that we have covered. GSK makes a wide range of products (see below).

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying over-the-counter medicines:

  • Is the medicine made by Bayer? We recommend avoiding Bayer as it has been involved in many dubious activities, including pushing neonicotinoid pesticides, and it also comes out consistently low in independent ratings of drug trial transparency and investment in research into drugs for low-income countries.

  • Is the medicine made by a company which has deliberately withheld important evidence of harm caused by its medicines? See our analysis for more information.

Companies to avoid

We recommend avoiding Bayer (Rennie, Germolene, Berocca etc). It also comes out consistently low in independent ratings of drug trial transparency and investment in research into drugs for low-income countries.

Also avoid Boots. See why.

  • Boots
  • Bayer

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

4Head Pain Relief stick

Company Profile: Diomed Developments
10

Earex

Company Profile: GR Lane Holdings Ltd
10

Ibuleve pain relieving gel

Company Profile: Diomed Developments
10

Jakemans throat sweets

Company Profile: GR Lane Holdings Ltd
10

Kalms sleep aid

Company Profile: GR Lane Holdings Ltd
10

Olbas Oil Cold Remedy

Company Profile: GR Lane Holdings Ltd
10

Otex ear drops

Company Profile: Diomed Developments
10

Pro plus

Company Profile: GR Lane Holdings Ltd
10

Ralgex muscle rub

Company Profile: GR Lane Holdings Ltd
10

Deep Heat

Company Profile: Rohto Pharmaceutical Co Ltd
8.5

Allens cough mixture

Company Profile: Thornton & Ross Ltd
8

Buttercup Bronchostop cough mixture

Company Profile: Omega Pharma
8

Care+ over the counter medicines

Company Profile: Thornton & Ross Ltd
8

Covonia cough mixture

Company Profile: Thornton & Ross Ltd
8

Glapharm

Company Profile: Galpharm Healthcare Ltd
8

Hedex Painkillers

Company Profile: Omega Pharma
8

Paramed Cold Remedy

Company Profile: Perrigo Company
8

Radian B pain relieving rub

Company Profile: Thornton & Ross Ltd
8

Setlers antacid tablets

Company Profile: Thornton & Ross Ltd
8

Solpadeine painkiller

Company Profile: Omega Pharma
8

TCP Antiseptic Cream

Company Profile: Omega Pharma
8

Bisodol Indigestion Relief

Company Profile: Teva Pharmaceuticals
7.5

Sudocrem

Company Profile: Teva Pharmaceuticals
7.5

Wind-Eze

Company Profile: Teva Pharmaceuticals
7.5

Anthisan bite and sting cream

Company Profile: Sanofi
6.5

Buscopan and Dulcolax

Company Profile: Sanofi
6.5

Dioralyte

Company Profile: Sanofi
6.5

Anusol

Company Profile: Church & Dwight Co Inc
5.5

Beechams Cold & Flu Powder

Company Profile: GlaxoSmithKline
5.5

Nicotinell

Company Profile: GlaxoSmithKline
5.5

Night Nurse Cold Remedy

Company Profile: GlaxoSmithKline
5.5

Otrivine cold remedy

Company Profile: GlaxoSmithKline
5.5

Panadol Painkillers

Company Profile: GlaxoSmithKline
5.5

Piriton

Company Profile: GlaxoSmithKline
5.5

Savlon antiseptic cream

Company Profile: GlaxoSmithKline
5.5

Tums Indigestion Relief

Company Profile: GlaxoSmithKline
5.5

Voltarol pain relief gel

Company Profile: GlaxoSmithKline
5.5

Zantac Indigestion Relief

Company Profile: GlaxoSmithKline
5.5

Alka-Seltzer Indigestion Relief

Company Profile: Bayer AG
5

Anadin Painkillers

Company Profile: Wyeth
5

Benylin cough mixture

Company Profile: Johnson & Johnson
5

Berocca

Company Profile: Bayer AG
5

Bonjela

Company Profile: Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC
5

Calpol

Company Profile: Johnson & Johnson
5

Codis painkiller

Company Profile: Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC
5

Disprin painkillers

Company Profile: Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC
5

E45 Lotion

Company Profile: Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC
5

Gaviscon Indigestion Remedy

Company Profile: Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC
5

Germolene Antiseptic Cream

Company Profile: Bayer AG
5

Imodium

Company Profile: McNeil Consumer Healthcare
5

Lemsip Cold & Flu Powder

Company Profile: Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC
5

Nicorette

Company Profile: McNeil Consumer Healthcare
5

Nurofen Painkillers

Company Profile: Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC
5

Rennie Indigestion Relief

Company Profile: Bayer AG
5

Robitussin cough mixture

Company Profile: Wyeth Consumer Health
5

Strepsils

Company Profile: Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC
5

Sudafed Cold Remedy

Company Profile: Johnson & Johnson
5

Tyrozets

Company Profile: Johnson & Johnson
5

Co-op OTC medicine

Company Profile: Co-operative Group Ltd
4.5

Waitrose OTC medicine

Company Profile: Waitrose Limited
4.5

Aldi OTC medicine

Company Profile: ALDI SOUTH Group
3.5

Pepto-Bismol Indigestion Relief

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
3.5

Vicks Cold Remedy

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
3.5

Lidl painkillers

Company Profile: Lidl UK GmbH
3

Sainsbury's OTC medicine

Company Profile: J Sainsbury plc
3

Superdrug medicine

Company Profile: Superdrug Stores Plc
2.5

Morrisons OTC medicine

Company Profile: Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc
2

Boots OTC med

Company Profile: Boots UK Ltd
1.5

Tesco OTC medicine

Company Profile: Tesco plc
1.5

ASDA OTC medicine

Company Profile: Asda Group Ltd
0

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

Pharmaceutical companies are paradoxical. On the one hand, they are involved in ameliorating suffering and saving lives, which should be the most ethical activity on earth. On the other hand, it is hard not to be horrified by many stories of their behaviour.

This paradoxical nature stems from the system that has been set up.

The basic problem is that the profit incentive, and the patent system which is used to pay for drug innovation, clashes quite badly with the provision of basic needs.

As will be talked about below, the system that we have has resulted in more than half of pharmaceutical company spending going on things that are pretty worthless, or even actively harmful: researching copycat drugs that do little for health, engaging in marketing that sways doctors away from prescribing on the basis of the evidence, and fighting legal battles.

Which companies make what medicines

This score table above shows each company’s best-known brands. The table below shows all their brands.

Company Brands/products
Reckitt Benckiser Gaviscon, Nurofen, Codis, Disprin, Lemsip, Bonjela, Senokot, Mucinex, Strepsils, Clearasil, Scholl, E45, Optrex,
Fybogel, Lanacane, Hc45 cream, Woodwards Gripe Water
Bayer Germolene, Rennie, Canesten, Alka Seltzer, Germoloids, Aleve, Bepanthol, Berocca, Claritin, Dr. Scholl’s, Elevit,
Iberogast, MiraLAX, Redoxon, Supradyn, Talcid, Kwells
Pfizer Anadin, Robutissin, Centrum, Chapstick, Imedeen, Nexium Control, Preparation H, Viagra Connect, ThermaCare
Johnson & Johnson (McNeil) Calpol, Sudafed, Imodium, Calcough, Benylin, Benadryl, Band-Aid, Nicorette, Pepcid, Benacort, Calgel, Tyrozets,
Daktarin, Daktacort, Migraleve
GlaxoSmithKline Savlon, Day and Night Nurse, Zantac, Voltarol, Beechams, Otravin, Panadol, Piriton, Piritieze, Zovirax, Nicotinell,
Tixylix, Otrivine, Voltaren, Prevacid 24HR, Oilatum
Perrigo (owns Omega Pharma & Galpharm) Galpharm, TCP, Solpadeine, Buttercup Bronchostop, Nytol, Beconase, Becoallergy, Niquitin, Prevalin, Lyclear,
Dermalex, Fenistil, Contac, Hedex, Philips’ Milk of Magnesia
Sanofi Anthisan, Dioralyte, Syndol, Dulcolax, Buscopan
Lanes Health Olbas, Kalms, Pro Plus, Earex, Jakemans, Ralgex
Stada Arzneimittel (owns Thornton and Ross) Setlers, Care, Covonia, Acriflex, Zeroderma, Cetraben, Metanium, Movelat, Crampex, Hedrin, Virasoothe, Algesal, Allens, Anodesyn, Aquamol, Cerumol, Galfer, Lloyd’s Cream, Transvasin, Virasorb, Itcheze, Mycota, Radian B, J Collis Browne’s
Procter and Gamble  Vicks, Pepto-Bismol, Prilosec OTC
Rohto Pharmaceutical Deep Heat, Deep Relief, Deep Freeze
Diomed Developments  Otex, Blistex, 4head, Ibuleve, Bazuka
Church & Dwight Sterimar nasal spray, Anusol, Orajel
Teva  Sudocream, Bisodol, Wind-Eze

Table highlights

Tax avoidance

The tax situation with these companies appears to be almost uniformly dire. The only companies to not get marked down for receiving our worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance were Boehringer, which got a middle rating, and Lane’s Health and Diomed Developments, which got a best.

Independent indexes

We marked companies down if they did very badly in the Access to Medicine Index or the All Trials Index.

Those companies that were marked down were Boehringer Ingelheim and Bayer in the case of the former, and in the case of the latter: Bayer, Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi and ViiV Healthcare (majority owned by GlaxoSmithKline).

Lobbying and political donations in the pharmaceutical industry

Unsurprisingly, pharmaceutical companies spend huge amounts on lobbying. Bayer spent $13 million on it in 2018, which makes it the 15th largest corporate spender on lobbying in the US.

Pfizer spent $11 million on it. Johnson & Johnson spent $7 million. GSK and Sanofi each spent around $5 million.

The companies’ employees are also some of the biggest political donors in the USA. (Companies are banned from 

giving directly to political parties in the US, so it goes on through their employees). Pfizer’s employees gave $3 million in 2018, with 54% going to Republicans. Bayer, Sanofi, and Johnson & Johnson gave around $1 million each, with 59%, 57% and 56%, respectively going to Republicans.

The companies mostly don’t give to political parties over here, although Sanofi gave £95,989 in donations to two Tory MPs in 2016 and 2017. (Companies can give openly to political parties in the UK. We regulate at the other end – spending).

Only five companies did not get marked down for lobbying or political donations: Lanes Health, Stada Arzneimittel, Rohto Pharmaceutical, Superdrug, and Diomed Developments.

Spending priorities and prices in pharmaceuticals

When you see how pharmaceutical companies spend their money, it is pretty shocking.

The industry spends twice as much on marketing as it does on research and development.

However, it doesn’t stop there. About 75% of the research and development spending itself goes on ‘me too’ or copycat drugs, which are almost identical to an existing drug, but have some marginal benefit – maybe they have an easier dosing regimen or avoid some of the other drug’s minor side effects. They allow the new company to swoop in and take the money but don’t really help anyone else much.

Meanwhile, only 4% of the products that were approved between 2000 and 2011 were for neglected diseases found in low- and middle-income countries, like sleeping sickness or Chagas disease.

The ‘Access to Medicine’ initiative, which is run by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Government, rates companies on how much they are investing in researching poor-world drugs.

The companies on the table were ranked as follows:

Access to medicine rating

1st GlaxoSmithKline plc
3rd Johnson & Johnson
7th Sanofi
11th Pfizer Inc.
14th Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH
16th Bayer AG

GlaxoSmithKline’s top position is due partly to its comparatively large number of relevant research projects. In 2014, it applied for regulatory approval for the first partially successful malaria vaccine.

The company is also doing something on pricing and, in 2016, it said that it would not file any patents for its drugs in the least developed countries.

At the other end of the scale, Bayer has a “low proportion of equitable pricing strategies” and has a comparatively small amount of relevant research projects.

While GSK’s better practice is obviously commendable, it still has to be seen in the context of the fact that overall, across the industry, investment is low.
 

The need for governmental intervention in the medicine industry

The patenting system gives companies exclusive rights to a new drug for 20 years.

Although the poor are suffering from a lack of investment, the patent system has created a situation in which they aren’t the only ones being neglected.

Many important potential medical research avenues are not being explored simply because they are nonpatentable, like generic drugs that might work for a different disease from the one for which they were designed. If the drug is out of patent, nobody has any financial interest in researching whether they work more widely, so they don’t.

And even worse: despite the impending global disaster of antibiotic resistance, there is scant investment going on into researching new antibacterial drugs, due to the lack of financial incentives.

The campaigning organisation Global Justice Now has been pushing for governments to adopt a more mission-oriented approach to health research, which is already used in other industries such as weapons, where governments set the agenda for what innovation needs to take place. Research and development for specific projects could be paid for upfront through grants or prizes.

There is some chance that this could gain momentum because there is a sense in which this issue transcends rich and poor – if you get sick and the research hasn’t been done into your condition, no amount of money will help you.

Image: campaigners in South Africa as part of the fic the patent law campaign
Campaigners protest in South Africa as part of the Fix the Patent Law campaign.

Sharp price rises in medicine

With the monopoly established by a patent, the drug company can then charge whatever people will pay. And obviously, in the case of a lifesaving drug, the limit on what people will pay is pretty much whatever they have.

This system is justified on the basis that private companies need to be paid for the investment they put into research, and it is true that bringing a drug to market isn’t cheap. But at the same time, they are also riding on the back of others.

A third of new medicines actually originate in publicly funded institutions like universities, and two-thirds of all drug research and development globally is paid for out of public funds.

Global Justice Now, in its 2017 report ‘Pills and Profits’, gives many examples of what appears to be gross profiteering by the pharmaceutical companies in the table, on the back of public discoveries:

  • Sanofi acquired the rights to Alemtuzumab, despite it having been developed at Cambridge University. It was originally developed to treat Leukaemia, but Sanofi relaunched it as a drug to treat MS and raised the price from £2,500 per MS treatment course in 2012, to £56,000 per treatment course.
  • In 2012, Pfizer raised the price of a 100 mg packet of Phenytoin sodium, an anti-epilepsy drug, from £2.83 to £67.50.
  • Johnson and Johnson has the rights to Abiraterone, an effective drug for advanced prostate cancer. It was discovered and developed at the Institute of Cancer Research, which is largely publicly funded. Yet its NHS use been restricted for years due to its enormous price.

All of this is straining health budgets around the world. NHS spending on medicines has risen by 29% in the past five years.

It is normal for companies to charge wildly different prices for patented drugs in different countries. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that the US spends twice per capita what we do on healthcare - without the NHS to bargain and push prices down, medicine prices are many times higher in the US.

A current issue in the US is the soaring price of insulin, which is made by three companies, one of which is Sanofi. 

At least six uninsured US diabetics have died in the last few years because they were rationing their insulin due to not being able to afford enough, and there have been street protests against the companies involved.

For more information see Global Justice Now.

Animal testing and medicines

Rob Harrison on the use of animal testing by drug companies.

Boycotting cosmetics companies for their use of animal testing was one of the earliest forms of ethical consumer protest the 1980s. Ethical Consumer has, therefore, tracked the use of animal testing by companies in our rating system since Issue 1 in 1989.

The companies in this guide to medicines, most of which receive negative marks in the animal testing column, are mainly testing for ‘medical purposes’. There are legal requirements for new medicines to be tested for safety on animals first, so companies have a less ethical choice in this area than some others.

Opinion surveys also reveal that public opposition to animal testing is at its least strong when the question is framed around ‘medical testing for life-threatening or debilitating diseases’.

So we recognise that people will have different views on the usefulness of the information in the Animal Testing column in this guide.

Interestingly, one of the main changes in this field over the last 30 years is growing moves from pharmaceutical companies away from animal testing for ‘drug discovery’.

With the biochemistry, physiology, size and lifespan of animals varying so significantly according to species, the model is increasingly failing. There is a failure rate of around 90% for drugs which pass animal trials to prove safe and effective in humans.

In addition, there may be an equally high rate for drugs being abandoned because they have failed to be safe and effective in animals but which might have worked well for humans. We shall never know. This has real implications for the business models of pharmaceutical companies.

With emerging new areas of study such as genetics and computational toxicology, animal testing is beginning to look like a very Victorian-era approach to science. As such it days do genuinely appear to be numbered.

For more information on Ethical Consumer’s collaborative work in this area with Lush Cosmetics see the Lush Prize website.

Pharmaceutical companies and their distorting influence

Image: ben goldacre speaking on the distortion of medical evidence
Ben Goldacre speaking on the distortion of medical evidence.

Over the past few years, the doctor, journalist and evidence freak Ben Goldacre has been crusading to tackle drug company distortion of medical evidence, the extent of which, according to Ben’s writing, has been truly staggering.

Multiple studies have shown that if you look at published drug trials, those that were funded by a drug company will have positive findings a lot more often than those that are government-funded.

It might be tempting to look for some subtle manipulation of the data to explain this, but there is a much simpler explanation for most of it, which is that drug companies have just shoved results they don’t like in a drawer.

Not only have half of the trials that have been conducted never been published, but positive trials are twice as likely to have been published as negative ones.

The amazing thing is that this has been allowed to go on to such an extent. While there are token rules on publishing trial data, they are not enforced, and flaunting them is endemic.

Goldacre thus started a campaign in 2013 called ‘All Trials’ which calls for all past and present clinical trials to be registered and their results reported. It has been having some success, although its recent research shows there is still a long way to go: in 2018 it found that 46% of EU trials have not reported results according to the EU’s rules. 

Companies have not responded equally to these demands for transparency.

GlaxoSmithKline quickly agreed to share clinical study reports for all trials back to 2000 and set up a unit within the company to process them.

AbbVie and InterMune instead sued the European Medicines Agency to try to prevent equivalent documents being released. ‘All Trials’ therefore does a ‘transparency index’ of all pharmaceutical companies, rating them on their commitment to trials transparency. 

Those companies that are on the table have the following rankings:

Trials transparency rating

1st GlaxoSmithKline
4th Pfizer
7th Boehringer Ingelheim
11th Bayer
15th Johnson & Johnson
25th Sanofi
36th ViiV healthcare (GlaxoSmithKline)

Marketing medicines

Warping the medical literature is not the only place that Goldacre describes pharmaceutical companies introducing huge biases into a system that really needs to be cold, clinical and objective. Over half of the industry’s – huge – marketing budget goes on ‘drug reps’.

There is now one drug rep for about every three to six doctors. In theory, drug reps just inform doctors about medicines. But of course, it helps things along if they are nice and charming, and give doctors little gifts, and keep notes on their personal lives so as to be able to bond with them better. 

Rather ridiculously, the doctors who engage with this mostly deny that it influences them while agreeing that it probably does influence other doctors. It has been shown that doctors who spend more time with reps are less likely to prescribe rationally, instead being more likely to prescribe the products from the reps’ companies.

Drug companies also pay for tutorials, teaching and conferences, staffed with experts who like their drugs. And obviously, they don’t do this out of the kindness of their hearts.

One leaked calculation, done by Merck, of its ‘return on investment’ from running discussion groups for doctors, was that a dollar spent on teaching brought in two dollars in revenue from an increased prescription of its drugs.

None of this is inevitable. In Norway, the industry is banned from funding any continuing medical education for doctors. In the UK, they are allowed to fund all of it.

As Ben Goldacre says in his book:

“The Department of Health spends a few million pounds a year providing independent medicines information to doctors. The industry spends tens of billions on providing biased information.

This presents a bizarre situation: doctors’ continuing education is paid for, almost exclusively, by the industry whose products they buy with public money, and by the industry that has been shown routinely to mislead them.”

This is a symptom of the culture that has led academics to be repeatedly encouraged by neoliberal UK governments to engage more with industry, with little
concern for the conflicts of interest generated. Obviously, all of this has effects on health. But it also has effects on money.

A 2010 study calculated that at least £1 billion is wasted every year from doctors using branded drugs when there is an identical generic drug available.6

Patient support groups 

Another area where pharmaceutical companies exert covert influence is through patient support groups, who often receive substantial funding from them – hundreds of thousands of pounds per group – without properly declaring it.

From 2012 to 2016, the drug industry donated over £57 million to UK patient organisations.

The amount is rising fast, and the annual amount more than doubled over the period. Pfizer was the biggest donator and, in 2016, it gave over £5 million to Cancer Research UK and Breast Cancer Now. Pfizer has just launched a very expensive new breast cancer drug called Palbociclib.

This is important in the UK, as representatives of patient groups often sit on NICE advisory panels which feed into the decisions about which drugs the NHS should use.

There is plenty of evidence that the money has an effect. One study looked at patient groups lobbying the European Commission. Those that were funded by pharmaceutical companies were substantially more likely to support “an expanded role of the pharmaceutical industry as an information provider” on drugs.

For more information see All Trials or Ben Goldacre’s book, Bad Pharma.

 

Image: state attorney opening statement at the Johnson and Johnson opioid trial
State’s attorney Brad Beckworth delivers opening statements in the opioid trial at the Cleveland County Courthouse in Oklahoma.

The opioid crisis in the US

The US opioid crisis has now received significant coverage in the media. Over two million people are estimated to be addicted, and tens of thousands are dying every year from overdoses. In 2017, the US government announced a nationwide public health emergency.

The most widely publicised drug has been Oxycontin, made by Purdue Pharma.

In May 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to misleading the public about its addictiveness and agreed to pay US $600million in damages. 

In the subsequent years, the lawsuits against Purdue have become an avalanche, and it is now facing over 2000. Many of these are from public authorities – 45 out of the 50 US states are suing the company.

The cases are being compared to the lawsuits against the tobacco industry, which resulted in a $246 billion settlement in 1998.

Purdue Pharma does not sell over-the-counter medicine in the UK. However, the scandal has recently widened to also include other companies who do, including Johnson & Johnson and Teva.

The state of Oklahoma is suing both companies, accusing them of engaging in deceptive marketing of opioids, even to children.

Given that the accusations have been about what the companies told the public, most articles on the topic seem bizarrely silent on the subject of restricting companies from engaging in direct-to-consumer advertising, which is banned nearly everywhere other than the US.

Although opioid prescriptions have also risen somewhat in other countries, including the UK, what happened in the US was on a different order of magnitude.

 

Bayer outside of pharmaceuticals

Image: bayer grim reaper sign ethical consumer

Bayer and pesticides

Pharmaceuticals are only one part of Bayer’s portfolio. It is also a huge producer of pesticides.

Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticides that are chemically similar to nicotine, developed by the company in the 1990s.

Since 2018, the three main types of neonicotinoids have been banned in the EU for all outdoor uses, due to their effect on bees. It took an excessively long time to get this ban due to a protracted scientific fight, with Bayer and Syngenta funding their own studies which found there to be no problem.

However, in February 2018, the European Union’s Food-Safety Agency conducted a major review of the science to date and concluded that there was no longer room for doubt – neonicotinoids do pose a high risk to bees. The ban was enacted later that year. 

Trump has rolled back the Obama-era neonicotinoid legislation in the US. Some individual states have restricted their use in various ways, but many have not.

Bayer is still fighting the bans and claiming that “when used CAREFULLY and in accordance with the label, neonicotinoids should not have any effect on bees.”

Bayer and Monsanto

Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018 and discontinued the Monsanto brand: its products are now marketed under the Bayer name.

It may now be regretting buying Monsanto. Shortly after the purchase, a US court ruled that Monsanto’s weedkillers contributed “substantially” to a San Franciscan’s terminal cancer and that the company had acted with “malice” in failing to warn of the danger.

In the last month, two more California court rulings went the same way, and Bayer was ordered to pay a mammoth US$2 billion in damages. That leaves more than 13,000 similar cases making their way through the US courts.

All of these cases concern glyphosate, which Monsanto brought to market in 1974 under the name Roundup. It is the world’s most widely used weed killer and, since its patent expired in 2000, it has been sold by various manufacturers.

There is no clear scientific consensus on the link with cancer.

The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified it, in 2015, as “probably carcinogenic in humans”. However, two years later, the European Food Safety Authority ruled that “the substance is unlikely … to pose a carcinogenic threat to humans”.

Sri Lanka banned use of glyphosate in 2015 but, throughout most of the world, it is still being used.

Bayer has recently admitted that Monsanto had, from 2016, compiled a list of 200 influential European politicians, activists and journalists who were critical of pesticides and collected information about them. This practice may have been illegal.

infographic: baysanto neonicotinoids and glyphosate

Generics

Medicines have two different names, the brand name, and the ‘generic’ name – the name of the active ingredient. For example, sildenafil is the generic name for Viagra.

You may not be able to pronounce the generic name, but if you write it down and look for it, you can often find the same thing being sold without the brand name. It will probably be significantly cheaper, and it may mean that you don’t have to support a company that you don’t like.

Some examples of brand-named over-the-counter medicines for which generics are available are:

  • Canesten (Clotrimazole pessary and cream)
  • Nurofen (Ibuprofen)
  • Anthisan (Antihistamine cream)
  • Pepto Bismol (Bismuth subsalicylate solution)
  • Nytol (Diphenhydramine tablets)
  • Calpol (Paracetamol oral suspension)

Company behind the brand

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is a British company and the world’s sixth largest pharmaceutical company. It was formed in 2000 by a merger of Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham.

Some of GSK’s most well-known medicines include Ventolin for asthma and the epilepsy drug Lamictal. It developed the well-known antibiotic amoxicillin, although it is now sold as a generic.

In 2012, GSK pleaded guilty to criminal charges in the US and paid a $3 billion settlement, which at that time was the largest payout from a drug company in history, although still pretty trivial in comparison to its £26 billion annual turnover.

The charges included the promotion of the antidepressant Paroxetine (Seroxat) for children, despite it not having been approved for under-18s, and hiding data about the safety of a diabetes drug called rosiglitazone.

GSK had conducted two internal meta-analyses in 2005 and 2006 and concluded that the drug carried a risk of heart problems but kept quiet about them until 2008.

GSK has been accused of bribing doctors to increase sales in a number of countries, including SyriaChina and Poland.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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