Strong regulation is healthy for complementary medicines

Strong regulation is healthy for complementary medicines
  1. Strong regulation is healthy for complementary medicines
    We should all be concerned at the sustained push by the complementary medicine industry for advertising…

Few among us are immune to the allure of the pill or potion that promises to make us stronger, smarter, leaner or more focused. And who wouldn't want to be spared the affliction of this or that ailment and the indignities that come with the advancing age? Calcium for healthy bones, magnesium for muscle cramps, glucosamine for arthritis, fish oil to head off heart disease, multivitamins for everything: the brightly coloured bottles multiplying on the shelves of our pharmacies and supermarkets seem to offer, at the very least, an insurance policy in case the doctors' ministrations aren't enough. 

A National Prescribing Survey found 89 per cent of Australian consumers regularly or occasionally use complementary medicines. We spend $3.5 billion on them every year. It's a highly profitable industry as well as a promising one in two senses of the word: it promises much for its products, and has great profit potential especially in developing markets. 

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The Therapeutic Goods Administration is looking to reform the complementary medicine industry. The Therapeutic Goods Administration is looking to reform the complementary medicine industry.  Photo: Jennifer Soo

That's why we should all be concerned at the sustained push by the complementary medicine industry for advertising self-regulation. The vitamin and supplement giant Swisse has asked to be liberated from federal government oversight of its advertising claims. When promoting its products, it wants to be spared the scrutiny of the Therapeutic Goods Administration and be subject instead to an industry-funded self-regulation system administered by the Advertising Standards Bureau.

Industry body Complementary Medicines Australia has also called for an end to vetting and pre-approval of advertising for therapeutic products in favour of self-regulation. Remember the old line, "Trust me, I'm a doctor?" It's a variation of that.

The current rules aim to ensure complementary medicines are marketed and advertised to consumers "in a socially responsible manner that promotes [their] quality use and does not mislead or deceive the consumer". Surely the pills and potions people can be trusted with that?

Well let's see. Under the present complex co-regulatory arrangements, two industry associations pre-approve advertisements for listed complementary medicines in broadcast media, print media and outdoors (though not the internet). The TGA or Australian Competition and Consumer Commission get involved if industry complaints committees either can't resolve a complaint or if the committees' findings, which can include imposing "commercially significant sanctions", aren't complied with.


Even Dr Ken Harvey, an authority on the regulatory challenges posed by complementary medicines, says the pre-approval process is efficient: about 2000 advertisements are reviewed every year. Most of them need changes to avoid standards breaches. As Dr Harvey states, pre-approval is "the only defence between a misleading advertisement on prime-time television and the unwitting consumer".

The TGA reviews medicines already on the market to make sure they're complying with the rules. Breaches were found in 80 per cent of cases investigated in 2015-16. The most common one was the failure to produce evidence to support product claims. Out of 141 complaints investigated by the TGA's complaints resolution panel, 98 per cen…

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