Science being ‘thrown out the window’ in Australia’s health policy, experts tell MPs

Consumer health group submissions oppose proposal to change regulation of complementary and alternative medicine ads

Evidence-based science is being “thrown out the window” during the formation of health policy, a regulatory expert with the Australian National University, Prof John Braithwaite, has said amid concerns from consumer health groups about the therapeutic goods amendment bill.

The bill proposes several changes to the Therapeutic Goods Act to simplify the process for managing complaints about complementary and alternative medicine advertisements and products. It will also introduce stronger compliance powers to deal with misleading advertising, including higher penalties.

But Braithwaite and consumer health groups are concerned by amendments to the legislation that will abolish pre-clearing of complementary and alternative medicine advertisements. The bill will also authorise an industry-submitted list of permissible uses for complementary medicines, including 140 uses that must be supported by scientific evidence and 879 that can be supported by a tradition of use, such as use in Chinese medicine and homeopathy, which has no scientific evidence for its efficacy.

On 24 January the Australian National University in Canberra will host a public forum to debate the bill, with speakers including Braithwaite and representatives from Choice, the Consumers’ Health Forum and Friends of Science in Medicine. The ad hoc meeting was arranged by health groups after the Senate’s community affairs legislation committee said it would not hold public hearings during its inquiry into the legislation.

“I am concerned that one of the fundamental principles of how we think about health in Australia – that is the principle of taking science seriously – is being eroded in the regulatory architecture,” Braithwaite told Guardian Austrlaia.

“Traditional, complementary and alternative medicine industries are bypassing the need to take science seriously and we are seeing same thing in climate change police. The science of protecting health is being thrown out the window and that is a threat to the integrity of consumer protection law.”

Guardian Australia has contacted members of the Senate community affairs legislation committee for comment.

Complementary Medicines Australia made its own submission to the inquiry, saying it was concerned by “vocal opponents of complementary medicine” claiming government regulators would be insufficient to protect consumers.

“Negative media attention would spread damaging misinformation about the industry and the government’s capacity to regulate,” the submission says. “These efforts are a misplaced ideological bid to throttle the use of complementary medicines in contrast to the worldwide boom in demand.”

Ken Harvey, from Monash University’s school of public health and preventative medicine, praised the bill’s provisions to fast-track new medicines to consumers.

“But there are other aspects of the bill that are potentially dangerous to consumers and need much more consideration,” he said.

“Advertising pre-approval is the only defence against seriously misleading advertisements appearing on prime-time television or in national newspapers. The Therapeutic Goods Administration has also ignored submissions that pointed out that including numerous traditional uses for products encourages industry to evade the requirement to have scientific proof of efficacy for their products and endorses pseudoscience.”

He and Braithwaite have called for pre-approval of advertisements about alternative medicines to continue until the other measures – increased post-marketing reviews and more stringent penalties for regulatory violations – have shown to be effective.

“The complaint system takes a long time to remove bad advertisements,” Harvey said. “Meanwhile, the damage has been done. Prevention is better than cure.”

Harvey said that in 2016 the Australian complementary medicine industry achieved revenues of $4.7bn, a compound annual growth rate almost 10 times faster than the growth rate of the overall economy. Australians spent more than $550 per capita on complementary medicines in 2016.

“This use is out of all proportion to the limited scientific evidence justifying the use of these products,” he said.

In its submission, the consumer advocacy group Choice said further measurers were needed for consumers to be able to make an informed choice about complementary medicines.

Its submission said: “Products displaying traditional use indications must also be required to display a prominent disclaimer on the label to the effect of; ‘This product’s traditional claims are based on alternative health practices that are not accepted by most modern medical experts. There is no good scientific evidence that this product works’.”

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