Governments are clearly reluctant to tackle the obvious lack of transparency in the labelling and marketing of the growing multibillion dollar complementary medicines (CMs) industry.

There’s hardly a medicine cabinet in Australia that doesn’t contain either a nutritional or dietary supplement or some form of herbal medicine.  Australians are speaking with their wallets and spending big on what they must believe are products that offer them health benefits.  There are more than 10,000 of these products available in pharmacies, supermarkets and health stores.

A very limited number of these products have been thoroughly tested and have evidence about their efficacy. A large number are little more than placebos.  I still find it remarkable that people actually purchase products claiming miracle weight loss based on magnetic fat-sucking properties, or believe in the obesity and s-xual function miracle pills being touted in the Sunday newspapers and on late-night television.

It is a serious and consistent failure of successive governments that a majority of Australians are not aware that we have a two-tiered system of medicines regulation of therapeutic products.  Prescription medicines that have been through clinical trials for safety and efficacy are stamped Aust R — meaning they are registered on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG).

Aust R products are completely different from Aust L labelled products, even though both involve the ARTG.  Aust L simply means the products have been listed, not tested for efficacy. Almost all complementary medicines are able to obtain the Aust L label, whether they work or not.

A report on complementary medicines by the National Prescribing Service found that 52% of those surveyed believed that these products were independently tested for efficacy by a regulator or an independent third party, such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

The TGA does some tests for safety of ingredients (there are some ingredients you cannot put in complementary medicines) and for manufacturing standards (if it says 5 mg it should be 5 mg) but no more.

Even then the level of auditing and compliance is somewhat limited to around 2% of the products on the market and the time taken to pursue complaints allows ample time to make a profit.  The bottom line here is that the TGA currently does not have the resources to spare for further testing of what are generally regarded as low risk products.  If people want to take placebos, what harm is there?

Packaging and labels are the front line of product communication for consumers. The Australian government can choose to improve and update the labelling to explain what testing is done on these products, it can run a campaign to explain what Aust L means and doesn’t mean, or it can invest a great deal more money to properly test every product coming onto the market. At the very least, for CHF the first of these activities — changing the labels — should be an immediate priority.

The issue of exactly how much risk these complementary medicines pose also needs to be more carefully considered.

A study published in the International Journal of Pharmacy Practice last year, in which over 1100 Australian pharmacy clients were interviewed (72% of whom used a complementary product in the previous 12 months) reported that 7% of this group or 55 people had experienced an adverse reaction at some time.

Some 71% reported the adverse reaction as mild and not requiring treatment, 22% as moderate and/or requiring advice and 7% (or four people) described as severe and requiring hospitalisation. The study adds that under-reporting of adverse reactions to pharmaceutical medicines is a well-know problem and long suspected to be a problem with CMs.

Of even greater concern is the official statistics on regulation and compliance of CMs recently released by the TGA.

About 10,000 complementary medicines are currently listed and the TGA receives about 2000 applications to list new complementary medicines each year. Random reviews are not conducted until six months after a product is listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods.

From mid-2009 to the end of last year, only 236 desktop reviews were initiated, and of those, 201 were completed. The statistics show that 90% of those tested failed to meet compliance requirements, 55% required corrective action and 33% were cancelled by the TGA.  Also alarming is the fact that some 15% of the products were withdrawn by their sponsors when they were informed they were going to be reviewed.

The complementary medicines sector is a massive industry in Australia and internationally.  It has some very big players, including major pharmaceutical drug companies.  It also has a lot of fly-by-night operators who appear quickly in the market, make a killing with some “miracle” new product then quickly disappear.

Governments are always reluctant to take on big industry or in any way threaten their profits, but with figures showing that some 70% of Australians will buy a complementary medicine in any given year, it is simply unacceptable to turn a blind eye for the sake of political expediency. Powerful industries should not be the primary consideration in determining regulatory policies.

What is needed is something successive governments have failed to demonstrate — a commitment to health consumers ahead of the interests of big business.  The buying public have a right to know, clearly and simply, that the vast majority of the complementary medicines they are spending their hard earned cash on are not independently tested to prove that they do what they claim on the label.

Labels and other packaging should contain a simple and consistent message stating this and the TGA should be allowed to broadcast this fact far and wide.

I am sure there is a pill somewhere in my local pharmacy that will claim to ease my frustration at the way the political process seems to squeeze out the interests of health consumers.

And I would be in the majority if I believed that it will work because it is listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods and sold at my pharmacy.  I wonder how much it will cost?

Peter Fray

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