By Moussa Haddad, VfL's Head of Research & Policy
Braving the leaking roof of Portcullis House, we made our way to Parliament yesterday for the latest All-Party Parliamentary Group on Vegetarianism and Veganism (VegAPPG) event. It speaks to the importance of medicines – what they contain, and how that is communicated – for vegans and vegetarians that this is the third time that we have considered the topic, including at our very first meeting in 2016.
With Christina Rees MP, the APPG Chair, overseeing proceedings, I spoke first to the depth of belief of many of us who have chosen to be vegan or vegetarian. It is increasingly recognised that veganism in particular is a coherent philosophical belief that should thus enjoy many of the same legal protections as do religious beliefs. As importantly, the lengths to which people will go to avoid taking non-vegan medicines demonstrate that these are, to them, important values and practices worthy of respect. I mentioned that people have told us variously that they expend a good deal of time and effort building relationships with pharmacists and doctors; that they decant medicines from gelatine-containing to vegan capsules; and that in some cases they forgo treatment altogether – all to avoid compromising their deeply-held beliefs.
Next, Evie Sier, a vegan patient, talked about her experiences of feeling forced to take a lot of non-vegan medications, in spite of repeatedly raising her concerns. Yasmin Aktar of the British Islamic Medical Association talked about how fundamental the concept of halal is to Muslims – that it’s not something that they can take or leave. She noted that the younger generations of British Muslims are becoming more questioning of medical authority, including wanting to understand what is in the medicines they are prescribed.
Dr Ishani Rao, a GP, explained that GPs don’t have time in short appointments to look through labelling information, noting that there is a lack of information from manufacturers. She also shared stories about how many patients she has encountered who seek vegan alternatives to the medicines they are prescribed. Yet there are numerous examples of medicines that could easily be vegan but are not, including where gelatine capsules are used where there are vegan versions available.
Finally, Paul Fleming, Technical Director at the British Generic Manufacturers Association, and a former employee of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) emphasised that these issues have been known about for a long time, and that the problem is achieving change. He discussed two issues. On the first, medicines labelling, he was optimistic: while ingredients are currently well-hidden, a new electronic information scheme is in development that should make it much easier for people to understand what is in different medicines. Regarding increasing the supply of vegan medicines, he was less optimistic, noting that cost has a lot to do with it. There are also regulatory barriers, with making vegan versions of existing medicines requiring a lengthy testing process that is generally prohibitive.
A lively discussion afterwards further emphasised that issues and concerns around the non-vegan/vegetarian medicines are widespread. People are willing to risk their health to avoid taking medicines that do not align with their ethical values. And, where there the only medicines available contain animal ingredients, people often feel forced to take them, and are left feeling deeply uncomfortable as a result.