It can certainly be argued that a $200,000 fine for unethical marketing is a minor impediment to Big Pharma companies such as Pfizer.

However, Medicines Australia (MA) at least administers a quick, efficient and transparent advertising complaint system with a range of sanctions that are likely to make marketing directors think twice before overstepping Code boundaries.

In 2007/2008 the MA Code Committee finalised 71 complaints and found 54% in breach of the Code. The average time taken to resolve a complaint was 26 working days. Thirty one complaints (44%) received fines totalling $1.8 million fines, 8 (11%) coped withdrawal of material or cease activity orders and 7 (10%) corrective letters or corrective advertisements. In addition, MA Code reports are publicised extensively in both the lay and medical media; such publicity must provide an additional deterrent.

Contrast this with the self-regulatory Complaint Resolution Panel (CRP) that handles complaints against complementary medicines.

In 2007, the CRP dealt with 185 complaints about complementary medicines. Around 90% were found to breach the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code. The average time to the provision of a determination was 112 days. The CRP can only “request” offenders to withdraw an advertisement or issue a retraction. It has no power to fine. Because of this, it also has no resources to produce reports similar to MA or even follow-up its own determinations. As a result, it usually takes multiple complaints before non-compliance is eventually passed on to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

The TGA (100% funded by industry) is totally non-transparent about any action it takes; it tells complainants nothing and publicises nothing. As a result, media coverage is the exception rather than the rule, although Adam Cresswell of The Australian makes valiant attempts from time to time, see, “Blackmores product claim ‘misleading’“.

Given the above, it is not surprising that Big Pharma is regarded by the public as “bad” while complementary medicines companies such as Blackmores are regarded as “good”!

In fact, complaints about complementary medicines are more numerous, often more serious, and are increasing at a faster rate than complaints against conventional medicines; it is just that the former usually don’t receive any attention!

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey