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Pharmacy Owners Ė Saints or Sinners?

Loretta Marron BSc
From a Skeptics Perspective

Issue 82: May 2009
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The Australian Skeptics recently circulated an open letter to the ‘The Pharmacists of Australia’ imploring them to stop actively promoting and selling unproven, sometimes dangerous, quack products (1).  Asking the question “when we ask our Pharmacist, what kind of answers do we want?” and challenging the standards they set for themselves and for their staff.
This month I’ll talk about it and why I believe that pharmacy owners are putting profit over patients.

Pharmacy chains fight for space in our suburban centres.  Located in the heart of busy shopping zones, these are lucrative operations with plenty of opportunities to cross sell to major illness patients like me, who rely on prescription medication, everything from hair spray to hangover cures. 
A typical pharmacy will have one side dedicated to prescription dispensing, with counters where you can both get your scripts filled and request pharmacy advice, and another side where the shelves are usually bulging with what appears to be many different brand names of so-called ‘natural medicine’. 
You may even see their resident Naturopath who will diagnose your illnesses with a free 15-minute Iridology consultation and will undoubtedly find a remedy to cure your many ailments, which may include a sluggish liver, an oxygen starved brain or a bucket load of unnamed pesky toxins that need serious and urgent removal. 

Multinational conglomerates are buying up high profile pharmacy trading names to use as shop fronts to peddle their unproven, usually ineffective, non-prescription drugs. 
These products are presented with multiple brand names and consumers are deceived into thinking that they have a choice without realising that these pills have come out of the same factories. 

Two pharmacies that operate near me are part of the Sanofi-Aventis ANZ and Sigmaco groups, but there are others who cater for the wide range of pharmacy owner requirements.

“Pharmacies on Symbion's distribution network include Pharmacy Choice, Terry White Chemists and CHEMMART” and they have a range of products “under labels including Cenovis and Nature's Own”. 
Until recently I could have surfed the Symbion website which proudly boasted that out of their Nature’s Own factory in Queensland, comes Biorganics, Cenovis, Nature’s Own, Natural Nutrition, Golden Glow and Vitelli and that they also owned the trading names of Health Sense Pharmacies, The Medicine Shoppe and Pharmacy Plus, but with the acquisition by Sanofi-Aventis in September last year, that information seems to have disappeared off the internet, so to back up my story, all I’m left with is a listing from an old telephone book and a few newspaper articles(2) to link to.

Surf the Sigmaco website (3) and you will find this company also “offers an extensive range of OTC products”. 
The Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods has over 50 of their products listed (4) with brand names that include Guardian, AMCAL, CHEMISTS’ OWN, Coles, Herron, VITA-MINIS (a range of vitamins for children), Kordels and XNDO. 

Suburban pharmacies are not the only ones who willingly peddle quackery with huge markups. 

As a cancer patient I regularly go to both the Mater Hospital and the Royal Brisbane Hospital (RBH) for checkups. 
Like many other major illness patients I use their in-hospital pharmacies only to find the Mater selling Ear Candles (which were situated near their prescription counter) and the RBH selling homeopathy and ineffective weight loss remedies such as Fatblaster which according to the TGA website(5), with nine complaints against it, cannot even be advertised in the media. 

While the Mater did withdraw the Ear Candles, when I confronted the pharmacy owner at the RBH with one of his homeopathic remedies, he admitted that the product was placebo, told me to stop being upset before stating that the product would be re-shelved as soon as I left. 

The NSW Pharmacy Board has Bulletin VIII (6) which states that their pharmacies can only sell evidence-based products, but when I sent in a complaint, accompanied by a photo of a huge homeopathic display in one of their pharmacies, despite my inclusion of considerable evidence-based research which showed the product was useless, they threw it out.

I have now been published in MJA (7) and on the NPS (8) , I have spoken to medical students, to GP’s and in major hospitals and I have been invited to talk at conferences both here and overseas, but when nominated by concerned pharmacists to talk at their conferences, I’m ignored.  At these same conferences, I’ve been told about sessions where pharmacy owners are encouraged to brag about their homeopathic product displays and their huge profits in natural products.

Are pharmacy owner’s saints or sinners? 
I believe they deserved the Skeptics Bent Spoon Award (9) that I was invited to present to them in 2006 for selling and promoting quackery for a considerable profit, to those who can least afford it as this seems immoral to me.  I may be old fashioned about such things, so you be the judge.


1. Skeptics, Pharmacists and the evidence base. Gerard McInerney http://archive.i2p.com.au/?page=site/article&id=1274

2. Metcash and Sigma cast their eye over Symbion Health Herald Sun April 23, 2008 http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,23583605-664,00.html

3. Sanofit Aventis website http://www.sanofi-aventis.com.au/live/au/en/index.jsp

4. TGA website - Australian Register – Current Medicines https://www.ebs.tga.gov.au/ebs/ANZTPAR/PublicWeb.nsf/cuMedicines?OpenView

5. Complaints Resolution Panel: Complaints Register for FATBLASTER










6. Pharmacy Board of NSW Bulleting August 2003 (Extracts) CAM in Pharmacies http://archive.i2p.com.au/?page=site/article&id=1274

7. Commercialism, Choice and Consumer Protection: The regulation of Complementary Medicines in Australia: Harvey KJ, Korczak VS, Marron LJ and Newgreen DB. www.mja.com.au/public/issues/188_01_070108/har10522_fm.html

8. Highest Quality Complementary Medicine Resources Identified (NPS)


9. Australian Skeptics 2006 Convention – The Bent Spoon Award Presentation


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