Walk into any pharmacy in Australia and you are confronted with a bewildering array of boxes and bottles – medicines by the thousands. A pharmacy exists to dispense these medicines, often on behalf of doctors, and provide expert advice on their use and effects. We trust that our pharmacists are well trained and have an interest in our medical well-being.
Pharmacists are also retail stores, however, and the more they sell, the more money they make for their owners. A moment’s reflection on this fact raises an unavoidable conflict of interest. We put our trust in the pharmacist to give us good advice, and in the Government to make sure that what they are selling us is legitimate. Unfortunately, where there’s money to be made, that trust isn’t always well placed.
As it happens, those pharmacy shelves are filled with two types of products: Medicines regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, and “complementary” medicines which are regulated poorly at best. (This problem isn’t confined to pharmacies – health food stores and even supermarkets are filled with unproven herbal “remedies” and homeopathic “cures”.) Although selling toxic pills is a definite no-no, products registered on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods are not tested for efficacy at all. This includes pretty much every type of alternative medicine you can think of: Homeopathy, vitamins, Chinese medicine, aromatherapy, and an entire zoo of weight loss aids.
Until now, the most potent legal weapon available to those concerned with the peddling of snake oil to consumers has been false advertising laws, but there have been few successes here. The published claims of the producers are usually ill-defined, making any sort of prosecution very difficult. Witness the fact that homeopathic medicines, which consist entirely of distilled water, are ubiquitous in this country. Australian doctors, and concerned pharmacists, among others, have lobbied for many years to have this loophole fixed. And now, it looks like the new Government may be fixing its eye on this very subject.
Senator Jan McLucas, parliamentary secretary to Health Minister Nicola Roxon, has been receiving submissions in this area. The Australian is reporting on the flurry of lobbying that this has caused. On the one side, the AMA, CHOICE, and the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia agree with the need for reform, but the Complementary Healthcare Council, an industry group, maintains that the current regime is working well and doesn’t need any changes. A group called Ethical Complementary Medicines has also entered the fray for reform, but who they are seems to be a bit of a mystery.
Weight loss seems to be the issue that has brought about this renewed attention. It’s no secret that Australia is facing an obesity epidemic, something that has real and immediate consequences for the health of Australians. Pharmacies will sell you pills – herbal appetite suppressants or fat metabolizers, for instance. Vitamins, liver cleansers, antioxidants are all pushed, usually with no dietary advice to go along with them. Then come the meal replacement sachets and low-calorie diets. All of these products are totally exempt from any scientific scrutiny, are unlikely to be chided for false advertising, yet could have profound effects on an individual’s health. Besides, they are a rip off. Australian consumers deserve better protection.
Senator McLucas and the Minister are therefore to be applauded for taking time so early in their legislative agenda to examine this issue. It remains to be seen what reforms will be enacted, and how successful the industry lobbying against it will be. A lot of money is spent on Alternative Medicines (as much as twice that spent on actual, real medicine), so with so much at stake there will be a fight. I hope the Minister is willing to fight it!
(Originally from http://claytonsouthlabor.blogspot.com/)