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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