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Whingeing and Whining and Winning

Loretta Marron BSc
From a Skeptics Perspective

Issue 72: June 2008
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How many of us have read an advert for a dodgy health product and just turned the page, or watched one on the TV and merely tuned out or even seen a display and looked the other way.  Let’s face it, we all have. 
However, if you notice that your Sunday paper has lost a bit of weight lately in the snake-oil sales department, there are some of us out there trying, with some success, to make a difference. 
For this article, I’d like to talk about ways to clean up advertising.

My hackles were first raised after my cancer treatment when I read adverts in ‘Senior’ magazines for miracle cancer cures “that your doctor won’t tell you about”. 
This was too close to home for me, so I started to write to these magazines and eventually the adverts were discontinued.  
Flicking the pages, I also noticed herbal remedies for just about every condition we oldies get and that’s when I started to widen my botanical expertise.

Writing to magazines is very time consuming – there had to be a better way and so there was.  Surfing the net, I found the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and within their cyberspace was the Complaints Resolution Panel (CRP)(1).   
Consumers could complain about the claims made in adverts and if their complaints were upheld, the advertising would be withdrawn from the media and the Internet. 
The next day I sent in my first complaint. 
Four months later, my complaint was upheld – that advert disappeared. 
That was three years ago, and I’ve been very busy since and, looking at the Complaints Register, I’m not alone.

The CRP has representatives from both the complementary industry and mainstream medicine. 
When a complaint is submitted, you cannot just say the product is useless; you really need to put in proof. 
This could be a Cochrane Review at best, or a good quality clinical trial (as many as you can find works better). 
I did try including a Cochrane Review (2) and a letter from a Professor of Medicine (a Director of a Natural Therapies Unit), but they threw out that complaint, which I found very disappointing.  Even with a truckload of research against a product, there is no guarantee that your complaint will be upheld. 
It is not the CRP’s job to decide if a product works (in fact no-one in the TGA does that job), they assess whether claims in adverts in the media and on the Internet can be substantiated.   With the growth in CAM usage worldwide, many clinical trials have been completed, and sadly, most products are failing, but even so, Sponsors can still get AUST L numbers when they state that the products are traditional (3) – no questions asked. 

Some of the keener Sponsors find a way to weasel around the CRP determinations, by tweaking the advert. 
For example, Horny Goat Weed, after a complaint was upheld (4) no longer states that “scientific research …have shown that there may be some truth in folklore”, but merely says that “Paupers and emperors alike have tried anything with a hint of a
reputation for being an aphrodisiac” (5) – which is undoubtedly true. 
It seems that the Industry Association, the body that supposedly vet the adverts, sign off most of them in about three days – and why not – it’s a great money-spinner and according to the Guidelines for Listings, it’s all perfectly legal. 
It still takes four months for the under-resourced CRP to process complaints, by which time the Sponsors have made their money and have juggled a few more herbs into different boxes for the gullible to try. 
Even when the CRP squashes adverts with outrageous claims there is no mechanism available for the public to get the TGA to delist products. 
Sponsors who repeatedly offend are inadequately penalised and so they continue to employ creative marketing to peddle their placebos. 
So it’s left up to the whingers like myself, a few hardworking medicos like Dr Ken Harvey and the indefatigable CHOICE, to clean up the mess. 
With a search engine that lets you put in the product name, the Complaints Register is a great place for any pharmacist to do quick research – but most of them have never heard of it. 

Sadly, once a consumer steps inside the doors of their local pharmacy, they are out of the territory of the CRP, so large posters for products such as Xantrax, which had a complaint upheld against it (6) can still be seen in pharmacy windows to lure in the vulnerable who think that pharmacies only sell products that work. 
In fact, the NSW Pharmacy Board has a Bulletin VIII, which states that their pharmacies can only sell evidence-based medicine.

But that’s a myth isn’t it?

1.  Complaints Resolution Website

 2.  The Cochrane Collaboration:  ‘Phytoestrogens for vasomotor menopausal symptoms’http://www.cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab001395.html

3.   Guidelines for levels and kinds of evidence to support indication and claims (page 7)  www.tga.gov.au/docs/pdf/tgaccevi.pdf

4.   CRP Horny Goat Weed    http://www.tgacrp.com.au/index.cfm?pageID=13&special=complaint_single&complaintID=1009

5.   Advert Horny Goat Weed

6.   CRP XANTRAX     http://www.tgacrp.com.au/index.cfm?pageID=13&special=complaint_single&complaintID=809

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