Honey Don't Cough

February 16, 2009
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Jeff Chamberlain, M.D., practices family medicine through Advantage Health and Saint Mary’s Health Center. He also teaches at Michigan State University’s medical campus in Grand Rapids. He is married and has two small children — enough to keep any person busy.

But recently, he and his wife, Christine, started a new company called Honey Don’t Cough, selling a natural cough remedy for young children that uses buckwheat honey.

Chamberlain conducted a review of children’s cough and cold medicines last year to determine their effectiveness. He combed through piles of research and found that the medicines are unsafe for children under 6.

“Basically what happened is, back in the 1970s, there were thousands of products out there, and the FDA wanted to rein in on what works and what doesn’t,” said Chamberlain. “They asked some experts, doctors and scientists, ‘What do you think works in cough and cold medicines and what doesn’t?’ These guys got together and discussed it. … They didn’t really do studies on it. All they did was take these guys’ expert opinions on it. Then they lumped (the medicine) together in a category considered generally recognized as safe and effective.”

Since the ’70s, Chamberlain said, just eight studies have been done to determine how cold and cough medicines work on children. All showed that they are not any better than a placebo and in some cases can be dangerous.

“I’d heard people say that before, but I never really believed it,” he said. “More and more reports (show) a handful of kids each year dying from overdoses of these medications.”

A group of doctors petitioned the FDA to review the whole category of children’s cough and cold medicines about a year and a half ago.

“Everyone on the committee agreed that it should never be given to kids under 2 because one, they don’t work and two, they’re dangerous,” said Chamberlain. “Most of the people on the committee said that for kids 2 to 6, there’s no evidence it works and there’s good evidence it’s dangerous, so we shouldn’t be giving it to kids 2 to 6. Over 6 they said, ‘Well, it doesn’t look like it works, but it doesn’t look like it’s dangerous. It might be alright to give it to kids above 6.’”

It takes about two to three years for the FDA to change its rules, Chamberlain said, and the process is under way. Drug companies already warn not to give the products to children under 2, and more recently have said they will re-label the products to say they should not be given to children under 4.

Chamberlain said drug companies do not want to pull all of the children’s products off the market for fear parents will give their children reduced doses of adult formula cold and cough medicine.

“There’s a big gap where there really isn’t anything on the market that actually works and is safe,” he said. “Last year a study was published out of Penn State on pure buckwheat honey compared to dextromethorphan, which is the main anti-cough medication. On the five things they studied (such as) cough frequency, how bad the cough was, how bothersome it was at night — buckwheat honey outperformed dextromethorphan.”

Chamberlain began to warn his patients about the dangers of cough and cold medicine for children and to recommend buckwheat honey. But he would hear back from parents that the honey was hard to find, typically came in large quantities, and was hard to administer.

“If you hunt around, there’s a few health food stores where you can find it, but then you have this jar of honey, and it’s actually much thicker than the typical honey you buy in stores, so trying to give it to a 2-year-old is just a big mess.”

After an attempt to give it to his goddaughter resulted in a bath and a complete change of clothing, Chamberlain and his wife began to talk about making the honey more easily available and packaging it in a way that makes sense for young children.

That led to last spring’s founding of Honey Don’t Cough, which packages buckwheat honey in boxes containing 10 ready-to-use doses that children can suck straight from the packet. At the time of writing, the company had placed the product in approximately 15 pharmacies and was in discussions with Spartan Foods, as well as a few other local retailers and a national chain.

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