ONCE again I have been threatened with a defamation suit by a complementary medicines sponsor.
This time, it is alleged that statements I made on the ABC radio program PM defamed Undoit.com.au Pty Ltd and its director Michael Romm.
So why complain about the promotion of therapeutic goods if it can be such a hassle?
Ethical promotion is a crucial component of National Medicines Policy. In 1988, I was a member of a team of experts who put together the WHO Ethical Criteria for Medicinal Drug Promotion. Since then, I’ve felt an obligation to be an occasional complainant.
In 2007, the World Health Assembly urged governments to: “enact new, or enforce existing, legislation to ban inaccurate, misleading or unethical promotion of medicines” and to monitor drug promotion. This increased my interest in testing the Australian system by submitting complaints, documenting problems, suggesting reform and participating in government working parties.
The Australian system consists of self-regulation by numerous industry associations (promotion to health professionals), co-regulation involving an independent Complaints Resolution Panel (CRP) administering the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code (promotion to consumers), and its underpinning legislation, the Therapeutic Goods Act administered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
Complaints have had some impact. In 2011, the federal government set up a Working Group on Promotion of Therapeutic Products to address the inconsistencies of nine self-regulatory industry codes and the problem that such codes do not apply to non-members ― often the worst offenders.
The Working Group recommended that the various industry groups create greater consistency in their operations and governance, and that the government make marketing approval conditional upon compliance with industry codes. The latter recommendation was rejected, as the government first wanted to evaluate the effectiveness of voluntary sign-up.
More encouragingly, this year the government has allocated $1.4 million over 4 years to assist both industry and the health professions in developing and implementing clear enforceable codes of conduct.
An important function of complaints is that they help to expose flaws in the co-regulatory system, especially with respect to complementary medicines.
The CRP has been found to be overloaded, underresourced and lacking the power to impose sanctions. Cases of non-compliance are sent to the TGA, which can “order” compliance, but this can be easily ignored. Underpinning legislation contains only criminal penalties and has never been invoked.
Another way in which companies have evaded the TGA is to delist products under review while re-listing similar or identical products. The end result is a multitude of complementary medicines that make extravagant claims without supporting evidence and evade regulatory controls for substantial periods.
Practices such as these bring the entire complementary medicine industry into disrepute. They also make it difficult for consumers to separate the evidence-based wheat from the hype-driven chaff.
Nevertheless, complaints about these matters have stimulated a number of government inquiries which culminated in the 2011 document, TGA reforms: a blueprint for TGA’s future. This sets out a package of reforms which, if properly implemented, could substantially improve the complementary medicines sector.
The federal government has also recently amended its therapeutic goods regulation to remove the incentive it contained to initiate legal action against complainants.
My experience shows that submitting complaints, documenting problems, suggesting reform and participating in government working parties can produce regulatory reform. But you have to be persistent, work with allies and not be deterred by minor annoyances such as defamation suits.
I encourage others to join the action.
Dr Ken Harvey is adjunct associate professor at the School of Public Health, La Trobe University. He can be contacted via http://medreach.com.au
Posted 30 July 2012