A sweet pill to swallow

If only you could heal someone’s pain by sucking on a sweet! Well, Doctors Without Borders' Achilleas Tzemos believes you can do just that

Imagine a world where you can suck on a sweet of honey and thyme and instantly soothe someone else’s pain. The Greek branch of Doctors of the World did just that and more. Their ‘Pastilles For Another’s Pain’ campaign aims to tap into a growing pool of solidarity for those suffering both at home and abroad

Imagine a world where you can suck on a sweet of honey and thyme and instantly soothe someone else’s pain.

Well, making that world a reality is the ambition of Medecins Sans Frontieres’ Pastilies Yia to Ponou Tou Allou (Pastilles For Another’s Pain) campaign.

It has been the job of Achilleas Tzemos to coordinate the initiative from the central Athens headquarters of the Greek division of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), something he describes as equivalent to building an unprecedented chain of solidarity in Greece.

Not only has he and the MSF team in Greece had the task of informing the public exactly how buying a packet of six boiled sweets will contribute to healing diseases, but they had to find a corporate partner that would produce and then help distribute the sweets at cost.

Lastly, but crucially, came the task of persuading pharmacies owed millions by the state to stock a product that would bring them no direct benefit.

“These three elements are what make the campaign such a unique example,” says Tzemos. “I think it’s the first time that all three have been attempted in Greece.”

It would, after all, have been all too easy to be convinced that a Greek population on their knees economically would ignore a cause helping, in large part, people abroad.

Small gesture, big difference

But that wasn’t the message Tzemos and his colleagues were hearing.

“Many people were calling us, telling us that they wanted to help  financially but that they were too squeezed economically,” he recalls.

“They felt they couldn’t help by donating only few euros. In other words, what difference would they make with 2, 3 or 5 euros? So we wanted to give them the opportunity to help by donating a very small amount of money.

“If everybody does something small then the outcome will be huge. This is the message that we are passing to Greek society. In times of difficulty we need to be creative and positive in order to take steps that lead out of the crisis.”

Hence the idea to bring the very successful Pastillas Contra el Dolor Ajeno campaign initiated by the Spanish MSF to Greece.

The concept is a simple one. You buy a pack of sweets from the pharmacy for 1.60 euros, of which a full one euro goes to supporting worldwide MSF projects treating vulnerable people, excluded from healthcare, and suffering from neglected communicable diseases – the so-called diseases of the poor – some of which are making a reappearance (malaria, tuberculosis) or are on the rise (HIV/Aids) in Greece and which MSF is already instrumental in combating here.

Of the remaining 60 cents, all production, handling, packaging and distribution costs come to 41 cents and 19 cents go to Value Added Tax.


Javier Bardem made a television advertisement spot for us, partly in Greek. This went on air on 21 December 2011. Then everything went up – it was like an explosion. It became viral
 MSF Pastilies Campaign CoordinatorAchilleas Tzemos


The brainchild of an advertiser, Jorge Martinez, the initiative introduced by MSF Spain has seen more than 6 million packets of sweets sold over three years.

Of course, starting such a campaign in pre-crisis Spain and among a population edging 50 million people is somewhat different to the launch of the Pastilies drive in austerity-stricken Greece in mid-2011.

However, rather than be put off by the limiting effects of the financial crisis, Tzemos was convinced the campaign would tap into a nascent pool of solidarity in Greece.

“We contacted high profile people from the arts, sports and culture to be ambassadors and production took place in August and September 2011,” he recalls.

“By October we started to communicate the campaign to pharmacies in order to start distribution. We made a very good TV advertisement spot with Angelos Andonopoulos, the well known Greek actor and longterm supporter of MSF Greece who is in the later stages of his career, which went on air in November.

“We thought that the message of solidarity is more appropriate than ever in Greek society, particularly solidarity to excluded people, vulnerable populations – whether that society is next to us or many thousands of kilometres away,” he says.

But it was a risk.

“Greece has become very introverted over the past couple of years. Definitely there are many, many problems and there are many, many needs that people did not have before. But, the Pastilies campaign puts emphasis on the indiscriminate nature of humanitarian aid, of true solidarity.

And now for the hard part

The second challenge was to find a company that would produce and supply the sweets at cost, and adhere to the MSF principles of practice as a non-profit emergency organisation that offers help indiscriminately of nationality, race, religion or political beliefs

“Many believed such a company would not exist in the para-pharmaceutical sector,” Tzemos recalls.

After much searching, a corporate partnership was eventually struck with Apivita, the producer of natural and holistic goods.

And then came the thorny issue of lobbying pharmacists.

“The response by that sector at the beginning wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great either,” says Tzemos. “There are approximately 13,000 pharmacies in Greece and, at first, only around 1,000 participated.

“So we decided to ask Javier Bardem, the Oscar-winning Spanish actor who is a longterm supporter of MSF Spain, if he would help us promote the campaign even more here. He made a television advertisement spot for us, partly in Greek. This went on air on 21 December 2011. Then everything went up – it was like an explosion. It became viral.”

Some 3,000 pharmacies now participate around Greece and almost 300,000 boxes have already been delivered. The dream is to reach every pharmacy in the country..

“The feedback that we have had has been 99% positive,” says Tzemos. “It’s a very good example of passing on a difficult message in an easy way and for it to be clearly understood.”

Oscar-winning Spanish actor Javier Bardem speaks perfect Greek in MSF Greece's television campaign

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