The Bitterest Pill…

Running a little low on painkillers the other day for the family medicine cupboard, I thought I’d procure a few packets of ibuprofen and paracetamol. As you can buy a packet of 16 for about £0.35, a couple of quid would see the Frances household ok.

So, a visit to the shop and 6 packets (3 of each) were duly plonked down on the counter. 3 for £1. Yes please, 6.

‘I’m sorry I can’t serve you more than 3 packets?’

At this juncture, you cannot begin to imagine the self-fulfilling prophecy of this medication. I enquired further, only to be told that it was a matter of Health and Safety and the Law. Apparently, I could go home and on an impulse swallow the lot.

I mean, I could do a lot of things on impulse, that would be bad for my health, if I had suicidal tendencies. The y would doubtless have sold me several bottles of bleach and odds are that downing one bottle would have seen me sharing customer service moans with St Peter. Or I could have purchased a fork and stabbed myself with it. Or just jumped head-first out of a second-floor window. The list goes on. But this wasn’t about Health and Safety.

Or even health. Or safety.

Or the Law.

What next, the garage refuses to sell me petrol in case I impulsively drive my car into a wall?

I asked him what the law was that forbade the transaction, or even the part of Health & Safety Law that might have covered the point. He didn’t know but offered to call the manager.

I asked whether the manager would know for sure.  He said he didn’t know.

At this point, I said that I knew the answer to both questions and beckoned him to open his shell-like to receive the Gospel of Frances.

In brief, it was not covered in Health and Safety Legislation, but for general medicine sales, UK law does state that it is illegal to sell more than 100 tablets or capsules of either paracetamol or aspirin in any one retail transaction. Furthermore, Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) guidelines limit sales to two packets per transaction. There are other limits on tablets per pack for non-pharmaceutical outlets, namely 16 as opposed to 32. But I digress.

It doesn’t mention ibuprofen at all.  Probably because taking a handful won’t collapse your liver (like paracetamol will) or thin your blood (like aspirin will). You just shouldn’t take ibuprofen if you have gastrointestinal problems. At all. It says so on the guidance, listing a few other circumstances.

And, wait a minute. 6 packets of 16 equals 96 tablets and because this company does a 3 for £1 promotion, they’re not actually following the MHRA recommendations anyway. Well, strike me up a gum tree. I smell bullshido from this post-pubescent fledgling charlatan.

So, after expounding somewhat, I probed a tad probed further about whose decision it was.

I thought at that stage that it was going to be mentioned. Indeed, a part of me craved it. Go on, my son.

It was the policy. Apparently, everyone follows this. I could even check with the pharmacist over the road.

Beautiful. Someone drifting down onto the soft, velvet cushion of the policy. No ownership, no accountability, no requirement to think. A plush, undemanding policy.

Fortunately for the sustenance of the extant dialogue, I had already been to the pharmacy, so was loaded up with priceless information treasure about what the pharmacists could sell.

I pointed out that I was buying packets of 16 x 200mg ibuprofen tablets, but I could buy 2 packets of 32 x 400g or even 600g strength from the pharmacist. So why could I not buy less of the drug but in a higher quantity of tablets from him?  Surely that would be safer in the calamitous event I were taken by a suicidal impulse, as I might regain my senses after a certain number of tablets and then in fact consume fewer of the potentially injurious medicine.

That would surely obviate any concerns regarding my health and my safety.?

‘Er, yes, but we have a policy.

‘Ok. What If I buy 3 packs now and then make one separate, subsequent purchase immediately, so I leave with the 6 boxes. So, you would do that?

Ah, we now appeared to be getting somewhere.  The assistant, looking like he had seen a light at the end of the tunnel, readily and excitedly assured me that would be ok, as we had not exceeded the 3 packs per transaction.

Who would have thought that a retail job could be so invigorating?

We do aim to please. By now, there is a large queue forming behind me.

Ok. Through the mists of policy, a glint of standpoint evolution had emerged.

After a spot of turbulence, we had touched down on the terra firma of pragmatism and heaved into the health or safety sickbag.

‘So, you are happy to sell me the six packs, if we put them through in 2 transactions?’


‘So, the process can be worked around as long as no more than 3 packs show on the till under one transaction, so nobody can prove it’.

‘Well, yes’.

‘So, you’re happy to breach the process after all?’

‘Well, no’.

‘So, could I have 3 packs of ibuprofen and 3 packs of paracetamol in the same transaction?’

‘No, that would be 6 packs’.

‘But you can take these medicines together as there are no known harmful interactions between them. So, 3 packs of ibuprofen plus 3 packs of paracetamol would not be the same as 6 packs of paracetamol’.

While we had a pragmatic solution, it was still not customer optimal, so I wanted to explore another avenue:

‘So, if I came in with a carrier bag full of packets of paracetamol that I had purchased elsewhere and asked you to sell me three more, would you do it?’


‘What if I told you I was suicidal?’

‘Well, no then’.

Ah, ok. Where was this going?

‘But surely your policy of a maximum of 3 packets is to protect people who are at risk of self-harm? So, the three packs is a safe limit?’

‘But you would already have a bag of pills, so you’d have more’.

‘Oh ok. I get that now’.

‘So, if I told you that I was going to buy just these 3 packs, step outside and swallow the lot, would you sell them?’

‘Well, no.’

‘But your policy says that you can?’

 And then it happened. I was not expecting a complete reverse ferret, but he stepped out of rigid policy mode and into the fast lane of autonomous decision-making.:

‘Well I would take a decision based on the context’.

At this point, free will has kicked in. Hallelujah, I can see hope for my 6-packet purchase.

‘So, I can confirm that I am not suicidal. Can I please purchase 6 packs, based on the context?’


‘So, you would believe a suicidal person and exercise discretion, but not a rational one?’

*rings for the manager*

And this is a parable of service in high-street shops up and down the UK. Staff on minimum wage blindly following process, without understanding the rationales that sit behind them.

Throwing ‘the law’ at people and just expecting them to accept what is said.

Failing to just be straight with customers.

And they call this service?

The collective attitude is the longest and most painful suicide note in commercial history.

Why not just state that after an analysis of the risk of time spent on a future complaint vs the meagre margin they make on the tablets, it’s a business decision to adopt a shared principle to sell them in low quantities? And that the tills are programmed to limit to three packets per transaction, but that they would be happy to put me in contact with Head Office so I could raise my concern?

That would sound fair enough to me.

And we would all have avoided the headache.

For which, incidentally, I never did get those tablets.

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