Vegans are part of one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements in Britain, they are people who follow a plant based diet and avoid consuming animal products including meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and honey. Many people choose the vegan lifestyle because of health implications related to the consumption of meat and dairy products. The World Health Organisation (2015) stated that processed meats were classified as having the same carcinogenic harm to humans as asbestos and tobacco, and increased your risk of colon or rectal cancer by 18%.
There are 3.5 million vegans in the UK according to a recent survey (2018), this represents a rapid increase since 2016 when the figures gathered by Ipsos Mori for The Vegan Society were 542,000 (Great Britain only): this is a rise from 1% to 7% of the UK population.
The survey in 2016 also showed that there were almost twice as many female vegans as male vegans.
Research, supported by Professor Carolyn Roberts of Gresham College, London suggests that many people have embraced the vegan lifestyle because of environmental concerns and in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint.
Supermarkets have responded to the rise in demand for vegan foods and most of them have a large range of dairy-free milks, yoghurts and many more vegan-friendly produce readily available on their shelves.
Being a vegan is said to be good for personal health and for the environment, but what happens when vegans do become ill because of any number of reasons including inherited health conditions? Most prescription medications are not vegan or have been tested on animals – this is a pre-licensing requirement of both national and international regulations; the UK requires and regulates experiments on animals.
Can you take prescription medications and still call yourself a vegan?
I have had personal experience of the difficulty that arises when trying to get vegan-friendly medication from healthcare practitioners beginning with the doctor to the point of delivery from the pharmacist I have encountered resistance to my requests for lactose and gelatine free medication. I have been vocal about my dietary requirements, and as a result I have been told, and shown, in the BNF, that most medications prescribed in primary care contain animal derived products. I was additionally informed that labelling of animal content in medication is generally poor and overlooked, and is variable on the institution creating the medication.
These experiences have caused me to wonder what happens to those who have similar requests for other health or religious reasons.
Rastafarians, Jewish and Muslim people are some of the groups that avoid pork and its derivatives in all forms. Yet in 2015 it was reported that many medications, including the influenza vaccine, had pork derived ingredients in them; since that time some Jewish and the Muslim religious leaders have offered guidance on using vaccines with porcine ingredients (2018). Rastafarians have historically embraced a vegan, also known as ital, lifestyle with one of the beliefs of Rastafari being that a plant based diet is medicine for the body.
Jewish people have a list of medications with a kosher certificate, and guidelines to categories of illness to determine whether a non-kosher product can be taken. There are also lists of halal and haram medicines available for followers of the Muslim faith – medications must also be closely monitored during Ramadan when fasting can cause the medication to have unusual effects on the body. Vegan Muslims are not as scarce as they may once have been; there is a dedicated website for the growing vegan Muslim community here. Several studies have been undertaken into the effects of the mainly plant-based and the predominately vegetarian Seventh-day Adventist diet on health; studies of the residents of the Loma Linda area of California show that people following this diet live a longer and healthier life and therefore have less requirements for prescription medications.
Will the strength of the green pound across this rapidly growing British demographic have an effect on the pharmaceutical giants or will changes only occur to the medications available when a wealthy vegan celebrity gets ill? The pharmaceutical industry may not be interested in manufacturing vegan medications because of the cost of finding less expensive ways of testing products. Vegans may continually be faced with the question ‘Is my medication vegan?’ when they see their doctors and pharmacists. I believe that disclosure of animal content in medications is important to enable patients to make informed personal choices.
Maybe the Government should introduce legislation to make adequate healthcare provisions for this growing section of society. It is worth serious consideration because vegan diets make economic sense in both land use and the reduction of CO2 emissions each year. Additionally, consistent healthy eating practices reduce the expenditure on medication, medical visits and hospital interventions.
The NHS has already conducted studies into the health benefits of being a vegan therefore when there is a subsequent need for vegans to access health care I believe that the financial savings that have been made in longer term healthcare needs could be redirected to the provision of appropriate vegan prescription medications.
Is there is any real medical choice for vegans who become ill? This thought led me to the following question: Why can’t all medication be vegan or vegetarian?
Without substantial changes to the manufacture of prescription medication vegans who become ill – like the majority animal-eating sections of society – will have to make additional ethical choices on whether to take medication that has been produced with animal connections or remain ill.
Is this fair?
© Marjorie H Morgan 2018