Take two and call me in the morning ©Getty Images
Take two and call me in the morning ©Getty Images

Supply audit: the low-down on aspirin

2 November 2017

A cure-all curiosity or a thoroughly modern tablet – the Victorian remedy that is still saving lives

Do you have anything for a headache?

I have just the thing. How about an aspirin? Cheap, readily available and virtually side-effect free.

Does anyone still take aspirin? I thought ibuprofen was all the rage?

It’s not just a one-trick pony. In fact, far from just helping with your hangover, aspirin has been touted as a medication for thinning the blood, saving the lives of heart attack victims, preventing strokes, lowering the risk of some cancers and even keeping cut flowers fresh for longer.

Aspirin is found in the bark of the willow tree, but what’s actually in the pill?

Pure aspirin is a chemical called acetylsalicylic acid, and although it’s thought to have been used for the last 2,400 years, it was first manufactured and marketed in 1899 by pharmaceutical firm Bayer. Aspirin is actually a brand name and in parts of the world Bayer still owns the trademark, but it has since lost the rights in many countries including the US and UK. In these countries aspirin has become a generic name for the drug.

Does this mean aspirin has evaded the IP battles many other drugs have faced?

Aspirin has already been there and done that. In the early days Bayer faced immense competition, both legal and illegal. It was denied a patent at home in Germany and had its patent overturned in the UK, while the US patent expired in 1917. Bayer sued the worst offenders but switched from selling powder to making pills pressed with its distinctive logo.

Didn’t Bayer also make heroin?

Er, yes – it was marketed as a ‘non-addictive’ alternative to morphine as late as 1912. Aspirin was considered less valuable by the company, but came back in favour when heroin’s addictive qualities came to light.

So will aspirin be one commodity that won’t be affected by Brexit?

There shouldn’t be any headaches over its supply, but the drug hasn’t always been immune to European turmoil. When World War I broke out, Bayer’s aspirin factory cut production because a key ingredient, phenol, was vital for making explosives. Britain diverted most of its phenol to making munitions, racking up the price. This led to the ‘Great Phenol Plot’, where the German government schemed to divert UK supplies being exported to America into Germany. The plot was discovered when German diplomat Heinrich Albert left his briefcase with incriminating documents on a train.

Tree of life

Hippocrates documented the effect willow bark had on pain and fevers in around 400BC. Since then aspirin has become so ubiquitous that in 1955 medical writer Berton Roueché wrote: “There are no countries in which it is unknown or unavailable.”

LATEST
JOBS
West Yorkshire
£375-425 per day
Beaumont Select
London (Central), London (Greater)
£42,219 to £54,984 plus £3,216 location allowance + benefits
GPA Procurement
SEARCH JOBS
CIPS Knowledge
Find out more with CIPS Knowledge:
  • best practice insights
  • guidance
  • tools and templates
GO TO CIPS KNOWLEDGE