Dictionary of Sydney

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Bex Powders

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Bex Powders

[media]Bex Powders were a compound analgesic that comprised aspirin (420mg), phenacetin (420 mg) and caffeine (160mg), also known as APC. It was the first APC product marketed in Australia and the most popular. Bex Powders were produced from the 1920s in South Australia by Beckers Pty Ltd. [1] Beckers moved to Sydney in the 1960s and in 1964 was based at the corner of Campbell and Crown Streets, Sydney. [2] Bex Powders [media]were commonly taken by dissolving the powder in water or a cup of tea. The packaging claimed a Bex would relieve ‘Headache, Neuralgia, Rheumatism, Sciatica, Lumbago...Influenza and Cold in early stages’. [3]

Cultural references

Bex were promoted particularly to women with the advertising slogan ‘Stressful day? What you need is a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down’. [4] The line has become part of the Australian vernacular and can be used to suggest that someone should relax and ease up. The Bex slogan was immortalised in 1965 when the Phillip Street Theatre staged a long-running satirical review A Cup of Tea, a Bex and a Good Lie Down, written by John McKellar and starring Reg Livermore and Ruth Cracknell. Over forty years later, in September 2011, Kevin Rudd, addressing suggestions he might challenge the incumbent Prime Minister Julia Gillard, told journalists 'I just think it would be a good thing if everyone seriously had a cup of tea and a Bex and a long lie down, OK?’ [5]

The problem with Bex

[media]The recommended daily dose of caffeine is 250mg per day and yet Bex packaging advised taking at least two powders, containing 320mg of caffeine. It has been recorded that many women took up to 30-40 doses a day, sometimes washed down with Coca-Cola, adding to the caffeine intake and strengthening the addiction. A further complication was that many of these women were also prescribed Valium, another addictive substance.

In the 1960s Dr. Priscilla Kincaid-Smith discovered that Bex Powders were addictive and that the large doses of phenacetin consumed by habitual users caused kidney disease.

One woman, Norma O'Hara took Bex Powders sometimes twice a day every day for up to eight years from when she was 20. She used to work at Rosebery Wrigley's factory and said 'most of the girls took Bex… it was to keep you going. Working the machines, you thought you needed them.' [6] O'Hara was subsequently diagnosed with kidney failure which was linked to compound analgesic abuse. It was common practice for factory managers to provide Bex Powders free of charge to their workers.

APC compounds were banned in 1977 and painkillers containing them were removed from the Australian market. Over time, this led to a dramatic decline in kidney disease. [7]

Further reading

Eileen Hennessey. A Cup of Tea, a Bex and a Good Lie Down. Townsville: Department of History and Politics, James Cook University, 1993.

Eileen Hennessy. '"Her stand-by for keeping going": APC use during the boom decades'. Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 15, issue 5, 1993, 248-264.



[1] 'Death of Mr W Wilson', The Telegraph, 9 September 1942, 4, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article172604360, viewed 8 July 2015

[2] 97/47/1 Advertising signs (2), 'Bex' powders, cardboard, maker unknown, manufactured for Beckers Pty Ltd, Australia, [1955-1965], Powerhouse Museum, http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=158733, viewed 8 July 2015

[3] Bex Powders, UNSW School of Medical Sciences Museum of Human Disease, http://medicalsciences.med.unsw.edu.au/node/302500715, viewed 8 July 2015

[4] The dangers of self-medicating: mother's little helpers don't always have a desirable effect, warns Claire Morrow. Investigate, 9, no 105, October 2009, 78

[5] Brad Norrington, 'Have a Bex and lie down, Kevin Rudd tells those who think he's going to challenge Julia Gillard', The Australian, 23 September 2011, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/therese-rudds-fires-kindled-but-julia-gillard-staying-put/story-fn59niix-1226144691810, viewed 4 November 2013

[6] Jennifer Cooke, 'The quiet disease that Bex built', The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 1992, http://www.powders.com.au/powders-articles/1992/8/18/the-quiet-disease-that-bex-built/, viewed 4 November 2013

[7] Su Dunlevy, 'Cancer Council NSW: Bex powder killed more than pain', news.com.au, 30 August 2014, http://www.news.com.au/national/cancer-council-nsw-bex-powder-killed-more-than-pain/story-fncynjr2-1227041736061, viewed 8 July 2015