Contraceptive ‘mini pills’ to be offered over the counter in UK
Progesterone pills can be dispensed by pharmacists without prescription from late July, for a charge
Women will be able to buy the contraceptive pill over the counter for the first time in 60 years after a landmark ruling from the UK’s drug regulator.
From the end of July two brands of progesterone-only “mini pills” will be available for as little as under £7.50 a month without a prescription and after a brief consultation with a pharmacist, making them much more accessible to a wider range of women and girls.
The pills contain desogestrel, a synthetic progesterone that inhibits ovulation and prevents fertilisation by thickening the cervical mucus and thinning the uterus lining.
The decision was heralded as “good news for women and families” by June Raine, the chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
“Pharmacists have the expertise to advise women on whether desogestrel is an appropriate and safe oral contraceptive pill for them to use and to give women the information they need, to make informed choices,” she said.
However, sexual health doctors called on the government to make the pills free in community pharmacies, since they are available free of charge with a doctor’s prescription, and to make a wider range of brands available.
The two pills, Lovima and Hana, are considered safe for most women to take. Combined oestrogen and progesterone pills, which still require a prescription, carry risks to women who are over 35 and smoke that are considered to potentially outweigh the benefits.
According to Maxwellia, which manufactures Lovima, a month’s supply will cost £10. HRA Pharma, which produces Hana, said it would cost £9.95 for one month and £21.95 for three. The contraceptive pill was first introduced on the NHS in 1961 – but was prescribed only to married women for the first six years.
Research by the Guardian based on freedom of information requests showed that almost nine in 10 women who received contraception from the GP or pharmacies in 2017-18 took the pill. The combined pill was marginally more popular, with 1.7 million women opting for that (55%) and 1.4 million choosing the mini pill (45%).
The MHRA’s decision to reclassify the desogestrel products follows a safety review by the Commission on Human Medicines (CHM) and a public consultation taking in views from patients, pharmacists and doctors.
Edward Morris, the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said he was delighted that some contraceptive pills would be available in local pharmacies after the college’s years of campaigning against “unnecessary barriers” for women and girls.
He said: “Even before the pandemic, too many women and girls were struggling to access basic women’s health services. The consequences of this include an increase in the number of unplanned pregnancies, which can result in poorer outcomes for women and their babies.”
Robbie Turner, the director of pharmacy at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said community pharmacies tended to be more conveniently located, and that pharmacists were well equipped to provide women with expert advice on contraception.
Asha Kasliwal, the president of Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, said she fully supported the reclassification of progesterone-only pills as a pharmacy medicine.
She said: “The fragmented sexual and reproductive healthcare system is notoriously difficult for women to navigate, and successive cuts to public health budgets have made it harder for women to get the contraception they need. Reclassification may also reduce unnecessary pressures on GPs, who will not need to see patients for repeat prescriptions.
“However, reclassification of some brands is only the first step, and buying contraception should definitely not be the only solution. We are calling for these pills to be available to everyone for free in community pharmacies, as well as the reclassification of other contraceptives.”