MML Rants And Raves No. 005: Over-The-Counter Medication Packaging

Medication packaging can be generally grouped into two categories: prescription medications whose packaging are often provided by the pharmacist for medications stocked and dispensed by the pharmacy, and over-the-counter medications that are pre-packaged and appear on shelves in the “drug aisle” of retail drug stores and in large grocery stores.

Over-The-Counter Medication Packaging

Of all of the items displayed on the shelves of retail pharmacies and large grocery stores, the largest variety of packaging design and product sizes and offerings are for over-the-counter medications. For instance, pain medications such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and noproxen sodium come in tablet form, caplets, capsules, pills, and liquid forms. They also come in various strengths and differing quantities per container. Some of the same medications are formulated for daytime use and some for nighttime use. Some may cause drowsiness and others will not. Some are taken with foods and others without. Some are to be taken every four hours and others every eight, twelve, or twenty four hours. Some can interact with other medications or foods and others do not. Some may upset your stomach and others will not. Some are taken by mouth and others by other means such as creams for topical use and enemas for…. Some need to be refrigerated and others must be stored away from cold temperatures. Moisture may affect some medications but will have no effect on others. Some must be stored in darkness and others can see the light of day. Some have odors to them and others do not. Some have a color and others are clear. Some are flavored and others are not. Some are oily in texture and others are in powder form. Some taste bitter and others are sweet. Some may be used by pregnant women and others must be not be handled by pregnant women. Some are for children and others must not be used by children. Some may cause nausea and others are used to induce vomiting. Some are used to treat diarrhea and others for constipation. 

But what do most over-the-counter medications have in common? Packaging! Packaging designed by the marketing departments of big drug manufacturers to inspire consumers to purchase their products. In other words, the packages themselves are a very significant form of advertising. If you look at the outside of most of the over-the-counter medication packaging, the largest and most colorful lettering are reserved for the brand name of the medication such as “Tylenol” and “Aleve.” Usually just below the brand name but less prominent is the generic name of the medication (such as “ibuprofen”), the form of the medication (“caplets”), and somewhere below that is stated the quantity contained in the bottle or tube. The label often contains four or more brilliant colors, each designed to draw the eye of the consumer to the packaging. Colorful shapes such as ovals, star-bursts, and depictions of natural fruits such as cherries and oranges announce that the product is endorsed by professional health care providers (such as “#1 Cardiologist Recommended”)  or provides what is suggested as unique benefits (such as “All Day Strong” or “Supports Colon & Eye Health”).

What else do over-the-counter medications have in common? Almost invariably, the size of the lettering on the labels of over-the-counter medications stating the all- important “uses” of the product, the ingredients of the product, and especially the “directions” for use are so SMALL that most normally-visioned adults and particularly the elderly (who disproportionately use more medications than other members of the public) cannot possibly read the labels, even if using their eyeglasses. While this may simply seem ironic or funny to some people, it really is an important and grossly overlooked issue: how many people have either misused an over-the-counter medication or took the wrong dosage at the wrong time simply because they could not read (or misread) the directions for use? How many injuries and perhaps deaths may have been avoided if the manufacturers of over-the-counter medications were required to use a LARGER SIZE and consistent style of lettering on their labels so that most people could read the labels under most circumstances? (This would be equally important for the printed information contained in the package insert — that multi-folded, unusually-shaped paper stuffed into the packaging of many over-the-counter products.) Also, the over-the-counter medication-taking public would be well served if the location and presentation of patient information required to be stated on the product labels were standardized so that when we need to take a new medication, we would know where on the label of an unfamiliar over-the-counter medication the information would be contained (how much time do people typically take to read the labels while shopping in the store?).

When it comes to our health and the medications we use, there is no such thing as too much government scrutiny or regulation.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, May 1st, 2011 at 4:17 pm. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


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