With four months to go before the EU-wide ban is implemented, thousands of patients face the loss of herbal remedies that have been used in the UK for decades.
From 1 May 2011, traditional herbal medicinal products must be licensed or prescribed by a registered herbal practitioner to comply with an EU directive passed in 2004. The directive was introduced in response to rising concern over adverse effects caused by herbal medicines.
Herbal practitioners say it is impossible for most herbal medicines to meet the licensing requirements for safety and quality, which are intended to be similar to those for pharmaceutical drugs, because of the cost of testing.
According to the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH), which represents herbal practitioners, not a single product used in traditional Chinese medicine or ayurvedic medicine has been licensed. In Europe, around 200 products from 27 plant species have been licensed but there are 300 plant species in use in the UK alone.
The ANH estimates the cost of obtaining a licence at between £80,000 and £120,000 per herb. They say this is affordable for single herbal products with big markets, such as echinacea, a remedy for colds and flu, but will drive small producers of medicines containing multiple herbs out of business.
Under EU law, statutorily regulated herbal practitioners will be permitted to continue prescribing unlicensed products. But the Coalition Government and the previous Labour administration have delayed plans to introduce a statutory herbal practitioner register.
This means thousands of patients who rely on herbal treatments face being denied access to them. Medical organisations, including the MHRA, have warned the measures may drive patients to obtain herbal medicines over the internet – where risks are much greater.
Dr Rob Verkerk, of the ANH, said: "Thousands of people across Europe rely on herbal medicines to improve their quality of life. They don't take them because they are sick – they take them to keep healthy. If these medicines are taken off the market, people will try and find them elsewhere, such as from the internet, where there is a genuine risk they will get low quality products, that either don't work or are adulterated."