I ran across an interesting combination of packaging for some medicine the other day.

The medicine in question was a prescription migraine medication. The exterior, cardboard package that it came in was fairly typical. The interesting part was that the medicine's outer packaging consisted of a thick, foil envelope, and the inner packaging consisted of a thick, foil single blister pack.

Which got me to thinking - both layers of packaging appeared to be equally effective at blocking light and moisture from seeping into the underlying pill. Using such extensive packaging would appear to be more expensive that traditional packaging techniques.

What properties of a chemical (pharmaceutical) intended for general usage (consumption) would merit the double layer of packaging and additional expense? Or to be a bit more specific, what is it about a medication that causes it to need such extensive protections? Or am I completely off-base, and it's more of a manufacturing concern in making sure the pill isn't damaged before being delivered to the consumer?

  • $\begingroup$ I have wondered about this specific medication which is very difficult to open - when my wife has a migraine she cannot open the packaging of the medication. I believe that taking even a small overdose of this medication is extremely dangerous and have wondered whether that might be behind this. You need scissors to get into the inner blister pack, risking damage to the pill when you do so. It is puzzling. $\endgroup$
    – Floris
    Feb 17 '15 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Floris for the medication I saw, both layers were reasonably easy to open. But I'll readily acknowledge that not every combination is like the one I encountered. $\endgroup$
    – user16
    Feb 17 '15 at 4:11

If it were a chemical protection issue it would most likely be sensitivity to oxidation or moisture damage.

The other possibility is double protection against tampering, which has in the past lead to people dying as in the case of Tylenol being laced with cyanide in Chicago in 1982. The other issue about tampering or hoax tampering is that it has been used in extortion attempts against pharmaceutical companies.

As a result of the Tylenol tampering case in 1982, the company involved introduced tripled sealed packaging. That crisis cost the company involved $100 million, at the time.

Edit: After the question was altered to specify prescription medication

I agree with GlenH7's comment below, after the question was altered, that being prescription medication would mollify the case for tampering, but not totally eliminate it.

The only other thing I can think of is to increase the shelf life of the medication if the outer foil envelope was hermetically sealed.

  • $\begingroup$ Any chance you have a number for the cost of introducing the triple packaging, for comparison? $\endgroup$
    – Air
    Feb 15 '15 at 1:15
  • $\begingroup$ I updated the question to reflect the fact that it was a prescription medication which mollifies some of the tampering concerns. It seems strange that a compound could reliably be used if a single layer of foil protection was insufficient but a double layer sufficed. Could you expand further on that aspect of your answer? $\endgroup$
    – user16
    Feb 15 '15 at 1:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Air No data found regarding the cost to the company when it introduced triple packaging, but the cost to the customers was between 1 & 5 cents a packet: articles.orlandosentinel.com/1986-05-18/business/… $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Feb 15 '15 at 1:50

When you're looking at packaging medicines, over the counter and prescription, you're not just looking at engineering requirements, but you're looking at legal requirements, both legislated (passed into law by a legislating body, like a parliament or congress) and court-imposed (the result of court or judge orders in connection with lawsuits). You could also be looking at marketing decisions; even prescription medication packaging is often designed with marketing in mind.

To understand it, therefore, you have to look at all of those. They're likely to be different, and the combinations of all of them can often seem nonsensical or wasteful. Companies will often keep their reasoning or rationale (or lack thereof) secret for good and bad reasons.


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