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Jun 9, 2010

McGrath Foundation should break their ties with Blackmores

Cancer sufferers desperately need all the support they can get, writes Loretta Marron, but the link between the McGrath Foundation and Blackmores is questionable.


A near life-size image of Glenn McGrath holding a large sign “Every Blackmores Multi purchase helps support the McGrath Foundation” stands outside my local pharmacy.

With a growing body of evidence that many complementary medicines (CMs) may be doing more harm than good, is it appropriate that this foundation, set up to improve the wellbeing of cancer patients, should choose to be sponsored by a complementary medicine manufacturer, many of whose products have little or no good evidence to support the claims made for them?

As a cancer patient with an interest in complementary medicines, I sent the following letter to the McGrath Foundation outlining my concerns:

…In this letter I have outlined my concerns relating to an inappropriate relationship that the McGrath Foundation has with the drug company Blackmores.  To support my concerns, I have enlisted the advice of a number of medical and other experts to comment on this relationship and they have not only detailed the considerable risks of unnecessary drug taking by cancer patients like myself, but have identified the undue influence put on us by high profile Australians when we make our decisions of health medications particularly when placed in pharmacies where we purchase our medications.

With sales of Blackmores “tickled pink caps” now exceeding half a million, there is no denying that this emotive campaign is extremely successful. It is well pitched and ticks all the clever “advertising tricks” boxes; a multitude of overt and covert messages, all designed to motivate shoppers to purchase their CMs, and all supposedly to help breast cancer patients.

McGrath is an iconic Australian sporting hero. We all followed his wife Jane’s recurrent battles with breast and bone cancer. She died in 2008, a year after setting up the Foundation to help other breast cancer patients.

The association between McGrath and Blackmores is also now well known. A Google search using the terms “Glenn McGrath” and “Blackmores” produces more than 10,000 hits.

Listed on the Australian stock exchange, Blackmores’ core strategy of “relationship marketing”, which includes tying the profits of sales of specific products to particular health conditions, aims at driving deeper loyalty and trust in its brand in the pharmacies that stock its products. In 2008/09, according to the Daily Telegraph,  it posted a before-tax profit of $30.6 million.

Search the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA’s) complaints register and you will find 13 complaints upheld against Blackmores advertising. With many of its products approved on evidence of “traditional use“, compare the claims on its packaging with current research and you will soon find examples of misinformation or exaggeration.

At my urging, medical oncologist Professor Ray Lowenthal wrote in an email addressed to Eleanor Garth, Communications Manager at the McGrath Foundation that there is “…very little good evidence in favour of the use of high or extra doses of vitamins for this purpose. Thus, my opinion is that one must be very cautious promoting what at best is an unproven treatment and at worst is potentially harmful.”

Garth responded that she would pass the information onto the managing director and added, “I’d also like to clarify that neither the McGrath Foundation or Blackmores have made any claims with regards to our association that multivitamins can prevent breast cancer or any type of cancer.”

But Lowenthal’s opinion is supported by NSW Cancer Council’s nutrition program manager Kathy Chapman, who says that vitamin supplements are “not all they’re cracked up to be” and that “cancer patients can be very vulnerable to suggestions, including marketing promotions, that taking supplements can do them more good than what can be backed up by clear evidence.”

Dr Geraldine Moses, consultant pharmacist at Mater Hospital, says that “Vitamin products may seem harmless, but they often contain non-vitamin ingredients, such a bioflavanoids, herbs and minerals, which carry a higher potential than vitamins for drug interactions and adverse effects”.

She also warns that this raises medico-legal issues because “…if consumers are not warned of the potential risks and interactions associated with vitamin-containing products, the people promoting them can be held responsible for potential adverse effects.”

In an email addressed to the McGrath Foundation’s Garth in May, also at my urging, Psychology Professor Joseph Forgas wrote:

“…people are not usually able to critically evaluate the substance of conflicting and often unsubstantiated claims about alternative therapies. There is a great deal of confusion about these matters, and the mere association of an organisation like yours with companies that have a commercial interest in selling medically useless products is liable to create even more confusion in peoples’ minds.”

I have yet to hear back from the Foundation but I await their correspondence with interest.

*Loretta Marron, a science graduate with a business background, was Australian Skeptic of the Year in 2007.


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17 thoughts on “McGrath Foundation should break their ties with Blackmores

  1. John Wood

    Interesting that not one of the people that Ms Marron quotes has any expertise in relation to complimentary medicines. Her generalities are as bad as some of the worst of the CM claims.

  2. Jenny Morris

    I’m sorry to hear Loretta has cancer, and I wish her a speedy recovery. While I think she’s right in drawing attention to the need to check the interaction of anything we put in our bodies, I believe she’s wrong in suggesting vitamins are dangerous and should be avoided.

    The issue here is interaction, and getting proper advice about these matters. Frankly, doctors aren’t much good at this – they just don’t know. Everyone should have a relationship with a pharmacist, and use the same one for all t heir prescription meds. Then, if you want to take a vitamin, you check with the pharmacist who dispenses all your drugs. They have a wealth of information at their fingertips, and specialise in… you guessed it, drugs!

    Frankly, mainstream medicine has a lot to answer for with its sometimes willy nilly approach to medication, just loading one on after another, until serious drug interaction problems arise. This is of particular concern in relation to the aged. I am currently dealing with this issue in relation to a family member, and it’s scary. All because doctors, well-meaning, but uninformed, loaded on drug after drug.

    So, get the message right, Ms Marron!

  3. tonysee

    @ Jenny M,

    … just loading one on after another, until serious drug interaction problems arise.

    Spot on. I have experience this myself and, only recently, a friend described how his daughter was a virtual basket case until she stopped taking the bucket loads of pills she was prescribed.

    Not sure who said this, but it stuck in my mind as a result of my own experience: ‘We doctors act as though we believe disease is caused by a lack of prescription drugs in the body’.

  4. Mick Vagg

    What about those complimentary medicine manufacturers like Blackmores who are not subject to any meaningful regulation of the claims they make or even the quality of their products? What would the commenters think if Pfizer or Sanofi-Aventis had been found to be in breach of their regulatory obligations so consistently?
    I invite those who believe that ‘mainstream’ medicine is irresponsible to look a bit more closely as to the chasm that exists between responsible testing and marketing of products in the highly-regulated pharmaceutical marketplace vs the ‘free-for-all’ approach of unlicensed healthcare where the regulatory framework is so weak as to be virtually ineffective.

  5. MichaelT

    This is a very broad-brush approach to a complex topic.

    If you are going to be a true sceptic, you should go further than seeking opinions from authorities. You need to give some consideration to what the evidence base actually indicates. You should then evaluate it in a consistent and probing way.

    For example a drug company has made a successful PR push for its new drug that inhibits the growth of blood vessesls that support breast cancer development. They claim this wonder drug increases survival by 2 months. It is all over the international media today, no doubt as a result of a media release from the drug company.

    But vitamin C has also been found to inhibit growth of these blood vessels, in a study conducted by the Bio-Communications Research Institute:

    “In the study published in the February 2010 issue of Journal of Angiogenesis Research, two assays were used to evaluate the effect of high-doses of vitamin C on the inhibition of new blood vessel growth. One was ex vivo and one in vivo and both illustrated the inhibition characteristics vitamin C has on new tumor blood vessel growth. The in vivo assay treated with vitamin C indicated 30% less blood vessel growth than untreated tissue.”

    Scepticism has a proud intellectual tradition dating back many centuries. It is sad to see uncritical acceptance of the views of authorities being put forward as scepticism. True scepticism is about thinking for yoursef.

  6. chazzai

    The issue isn’t whether or not vitamins can help to inhibit cancer growth (Michaelt could you provide a link for that – I’d genuinely like to read it), or the readiness of many in the medical profession to treat a condition with a pill, it’s is it proper for an organisation such as the McGrath Foundation, which has considerable public support and sympathy, to associate itself with a company that markets supplements that have little proven benefit that can’t be replicated with a good diet (and that may have some harms).

    I understand the Foundation must be receiving many well needed funds from the collaboration, but I agree with the author, that this is a poor choice of business partner.

  7. Spectator

    Loretta is right on the mark especially in context of her remark about complaints about Blackmores; they don’t give a stuff about regulatory authorities on the basis that they are the market leader & can do what they like. The McGrath F’ion obviously has not thought this through and I doubt that they have a policy relating to linking their name to commercial organisations especially when it comes down to products that people are putting in their mouths. The issue of interaction with medication that a patient may already be taking is one thing but of greater significance is the matter of many vitamins, especially in constant or ‘super doses,’ may actually promote tumour growth. During the Senate 2005 inquiry into cancer treatment (The cancer journey:informing choice) Complementary (not ComplImentary!) & Alternative Therapies were thoroughly reviewed. Numerous professional organisations and individuals either made submissions or appeared at hearings – but Blackmores – the largest manufacturer in the country couldn’t be bothered. The McGrath F’ion should review their decision.

  8. Terry59

    Complementary, Spectator (not ComplImentary!). I’m sceptic of the sceptic who goes for the facile argument rather than the substantial one – posturing for her peers? The sceptics traditionally and seasonally take shots at the alternative and complementary medicine sector – it’s in their DNA (see Darwin et al). It is an individual’s health choice to use or not the supplements made by Blackmores. Promotion through the McGrath Foundation link or any other means hasn’t the moral weight and authority that prescription and over the counter drugs enjoy via the support of GPs – something drug companies know well given the millions spent on currying favour to prescribe their next wonder drug. Yet our friends the sceptics never address the elephant in the room – the percentage of prescription drug users made more ill by the drug compared to the percentage of vitamin/mineral/herb users made more ill by the use of these products. If the number of adverse events related to complementary medicine were anywhere near that of conventional medicine I would take heed of our concerned sceptic brethren.

  9. MichaelT

    Chazzai, the vitamin C anti-angiogenesis study can be found at: http://www.bcrionline.org/

  10. Spectator

    Well “Terry59” just read what Spectator wrote! Complementary not Complimentary! But I agree there is often a ‘too close for comfort’ factor between GPs and specialists and Big Pharma. Unfortunately it is Big Pharma who is funding the lion’s share of research to develop new drugs. Government in the form of Universities and Teaching Hospitals have all but melted away in context of real research funding.

  11. Nicholas Wilcken

    I think that whether the McGrath Foundation should align itself with Blackmores or not is a tricky issue. On the one hand, McGrath’s is a good cause and all funds are welcome; on the other hand, Blackmores have no products that affect the course of breast cancer, and I suspect do not claim this (if they do, they are absolutely and comprehensively wrong). But one thing should be made clear – there is no evidence at all that vitamin supplements either stop people from getting cancer or help them when they do. Large scale international studies if anything show the opposite – higher rates of cancer in those either consuming higher vitamin diets or randomised in trials to take vitamin supplements. So they might be harmful (still some debate) but they are definitely not helpful. We all wish they were, but they aren’t. I feel a turkey parading this, but I’m MB BS, PhD, FRACP and have devoted my working life to treating women with breast cancer.

  12. Terry59

    Nicholas – many in the medical professions have devoted themselves to treating women with breast cancer – some more qualified than you. You will find in that group a significant number who incorporate complementary medicine into the treatment plan. The difference between you and them may in fact be that they took on more years of study in nutritional medicine to compensate for the few weeks devoted to it in the typical medical degree. Your claim that ‘ there is no evidence at all that vitamin supplements either stop people from getting cancer or help them when they do’ is a bold, yet ignorant assertion. Even more ignorant and disappointing given your education (or because of it) is your assertion that studies show ‘higher rates of cancer in those consuming higher vitamin diets’. Higher than what diets? The western diet that causes over 70% of degenerative diseases in our population? Are you seriously suggesting we should avoid high vitamin diets like fruits, vegetables and fish and go for the lower vitamin diets like processed and packaged foods from our local IGA? A more reliable source of research in these matters than the weekly newspaper reports on the next shocking piece of medical research (usually dotted with the words ‘could’ and ‘may’ because it is largely unsubstantiated) is Werbach’s Nutritional Influences on Illness which documents validated clinical studies.

  13. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Terry59, clearly you want to take this thread into a discussion about the pros and cons of complementary medicine…. although the original story is about sponsorship and the connecting of an AAA+ rated charity (McGrath Foundation) to an unrateable commercial entity selling high quality, if indeterminate, complementary ‘medicines’. You’d have to say that it is Blackmores that have positioned themselves nicely here (and good luck to them, there can’t possibly be a negative for them in this arrangement) but but also on the face of it, the Foundation have found an excellent, virtually complementary, partner.
    I think it is cowardly of SPECTATOR to slag off with the comment, “…they don’t give a stuff about regulatory authorities on the basis that they are the market leader & can do what they like.” Spectator will have noticed what happened to the Commonwealth regulator when they acted on similar half-baked, unevidenced claims against another of these complementary medicine firms a couple of years ago. The company went broke but the compensation claims arising from the blatant defamation cost taxpayers millions (and millions more) when the truth was outed. There is a regulatory authority and I’m certain Blackmores would be right up to date and on the ball with that Authority. Spectator might like to find a tinsel of evidence before making such outrageous, in fact stupid and ignorant, claims. Such claims, if they contained even a grain of truth, would cast a pall over the Foundation so let’s not jump to the outlandish conclusion that is invited.

  14. David Gravina

    The McGrath Foundation has two objectives:
    “to raise money to place breast care nurses in hospitals in right across rural and regional Australia; and to educate young women to become breast aware.”

    Blackmores provide financial assistance to the McGrath Foundation and advertise this as support.

    What Blackmores do not do (in this instance anyway) is to say is that taking their vitamins cure cancer. Loretta makes this link in her own head. How this makes the relationship unethical is completely beyond me.

  15. Spectator

    So ‘Charlie’ you obviously want to promote the Blackamoor (sorry – Blackmores) cause and to a great extent ignore Loretta’s original & valid critique. The ‘grain of truth’ you are looking for (in fact there are grains) lie in the non response and cavalier attitude of Blackmores not just during the 2005 ‘Cook’ cancer treatment enquiry(ISBN 0 642 71509 2) but also a preceding one into complementary medications(Complementary Medicines in the Australian Health System Sept 2003). On the record with the Senate’s Community Affairs References Committee (the Secretariat) are requests made to Blackmores for their input and attendance at hearings and/or written submissions. As I said before they just don’t bother to respond and there is no legal mechanism to force them. Information about the company itself is ‘obscure’; which is just the way they want it. No – as others have pointed out the tie-up between Blackmores and the McGrath F’ion doesn’t involve specific claims about their products curing or preventing cancer and the company wouldn’t be so stupid. But the association is a de facto ‘endorsement’ (however loose) by a cancer charity of a commercial organisation selling vitamins. What the community should be told (especially those who have made contributions to the McGrath F’ion) is how much they are getting from Blackmores. Maybe then the ‘Wesleyan’ clause might be invoked to the extent that they are ‘taking the devil’s money to do God’s work!’ RIP

  16. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    No SPECTATOR, I do not “obviously” want to promote Blackmores, in fact the organisation and its products are outside my area of interest. What I question is your assertion that this or any other company’s non-attendance at a government organised ‘enquiry’ to which it had been invited (if that’s what you mean by “requests”) means that they “don’t give a stuff”. Has it occurred to you that the company’s interests may have been compromised in the same kind of way that Pan Pharmaceuticals came to be – I can’t remember the exact date of that fiasco but it must have been around the mid 2000s. Did you ever wonder what that $20 million payout in public money could have purchased?
    Clearly, you believe that Blackmore money is tainted money so the quantum wouldn’t actually make any difference to you. Whilst you’re entitled to your deeply flawed and crudely cavalier opinion the McGrath Foundation is equally entitled to dismiss it with the contempt it deserves.

  17. John Wood

    Right on Charlie! When I wanted to find out some information from Blackmores, I rang and spoke to the boss himself – some obscurity!


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