Obecalp:soothing growing pains or a replacement for love?

Published in the 26 June issue of Community Care under headline ‘Placebos cannot replace love’

The marketing of dubious remedies for children has highlighted the rise of the medicalisation of childhood, writes Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

The launch of a new cherry-flavoured chewable pill for children has provoked widespread controversy. The pill, called Obecalp – placebo spelled backwards – contains only sugar and aims to trick children into believing that they are getting medical treatment.

According to Efficacy Brands, the company marketing Obecalp (at £3 for 50 pills), their new product allows parents to “soothe the pains of childhood” without resorting to drugs with potentially harmful side-effects. Obecalp has received a chorus of condemnation from doctors and commentators who accuse its promoters of deceiving children, exploiting parents and of “medicalising love”.

But while Obecalp may claim to be the “first standardised placebo” for children, critics of the medicalisation of childhood and of the promotion of medications of dubious value might usefully review some fashionable treatments.

Jennifer Buettner, the American mother who hit on the concept of Obecalp in struggling to meet the demands of her three young children, claims that her placebo can stimulate “the body’s ability to repair itself and the miracle power of the brain”. This claim has a familiar ring: it is a combination of the sort of immunological gobbledegook and alternative healing rhetoric that is used to promote a wide range of over-the-counter pharmaceutical products – for children as well as adults.


Vitamins are marketed in vast quantities for children on the dubious claim that they in some way “enhance” or “strengthen” the immune system. A multimillion pound industry has thrived on the fallacy that if a deficiency of some substance causes disease, then a great excess of it must be beneficial to health. Though there is scant evidence of the benefits of megadoses of vitamins, there are well known dangers of their excessive use.

A powerful corporate network supported by many alternative practitioners now promotes herbal and homeopathic products for children, making similarly extravagant – and unsubstantiated – claims for their preventive and therapeutic powers. Manufacturers of minerals, anti-oxidants, pro-biotics and other “nutraceuticals” are all profiting from the booming children’s market.

Brain boost

Obecalp is not the first pill that has promised to “boost brain power” in children. This is one of the key claims of the drug companies promoting Omega 3 fatty acids. Television and newspapers have reported controversial studies claiming that these pills can improve examination performance and reduce delinquency.

Jennifer Buettner may be taking advantage of the idea that pills are the answer to the problems of childhood, but this concept did not originate in Efficacy Brands’ marketing department. It has deep roots in a culture that has encouraged the dubious use of medication to improve health and has redefined a wide range of childhood behaviour in terms of disease.

I wonder if it has occurred to Jennifer Buettner that when her children say that they want medicine, perhaps what they need is a cuddle.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is a GP in the London Borough of Hackney

See Derren Hayes’s blog on Obecalp

See other articles by Dr Fitzpatrick by clicking here (and then click ‘all results’)

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