Transparency review of the TGA

On July 20th the Review to improve the transparency of the Therapeutic Goods Administration was published.

From an evidence point of view the only game in town is the burgeoning market in what the TGA must only deem to be relatively low risk compounds, sold to a trusting public as alternative or complementary “medicines”. Under present regulations products do not have to demonstrate efficacy. They are thus registered only on a risk basis. Evidence need not be supplied proving claims advertised on packaging. Only an assurance that evidence exists. All that brain developing, flu resisting, sexual performing, “wellbeing” heightening hokudus pokudus has the credibility of a greeting card slogan. So, how does this happen?

To register a product, sponsors use an electronic listing facility – ELF – by simply going online. Much like filling out a Facebook profile. Ingredients are selected from a drop down list. Near enough is good enough. These ingredients are already deemed riskish free by the TGA. Sponsors “self certify” under GMP requirements. Basically claiming that the goods are produced under Good Marketing Practice. Finally they tick a box indicating that they hold good evidence. Hand on heart no doubt. No checks are ever run. They pay the $600 fee and receive an AUST L number. These goods are then able to be listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods.

Results of a Post-Listing compliance review over 2009-2010 was posted by the TGA on May 11th, 2011:

Between July 2009 and March 2010, the TGA completed 110 compliance reviews of Listed complementary medicines. Of these, 31 were random and 79 were targeted.

Of the 31 random reviews conducted, the following compliance issues were recorded:

  • 20 medicines had labelling issues such as non-compliance with labelling requirements and/or breaches which may mislead consumers.
  • 12 included incomplete and/or inappropriate information on the ARTG.
  • 22 were found to have manufacturing and/or quality issues.
  • 14 did not have adequate evidence to substantiate claims made about the medicines.

Concerning the 79 targeted reviews completed, the reasons for targeting and the data reviewed differed widely:

  • Label reviews were conducted on 52 medicines, of which 34 had compliance issues.
  • Information included on the ARTG was reviewed for all 79 medicines, of which 54 had compliance issues.
  • Manufacturing/quality/formulation reviews were conducted on 50 medicines, of which 30 had compliance issues.
  • Evidence reviews were conducted on 15 medicines, of which 9 had claims that were not substantiated by the evidence submitted.

Clearly then, the system can be abused and often is, highlighting the paper tiger status of the TGA, and the overburdened, under-resourced Complaints Resolution Panel. One issue that has been widely publicised followed a complaint by Dr. Ken Harvey about the SensaSlim weight loss spray. It’s now widely known that con man Peter Foster is indeed behind this global scam, with his name appearing on court documents. When Harvey’s complaint became known Ken was hit with a SLAPP – Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Prosecution. In this case SensaSlim sued for defamation. Under current guidelines all complaint processes must be halted until other lawsuits are finalised. This can take well over 12 months during which time profits continue to roll in. There’s very little in the review below that leads one to conclude such conduct is going to be more effectively dealt with.

Whilst there are naturally occurring OTC products of known efficacy such as Omega 3 fish oil and St. John’s Wort, efforts must be made to seek sources such as Arthritis Australia or Beyond Blue to ascertain effectiveness. In both these cases not all arthritis nor all depression types respectively, respond to either product. A tragedy that has unfolded is the partnering of Arthritis Australia with daylight robbers, Ethical Nutrients. This rather unethical company will charge $70:00 and more for a small bottle of Omega 3 fish oil.

It sits in splendid spotlit glory in a refrigerator in the pharmacy, even though it need not be refrigerated until after opening. Stalk a few shelves and you’ll find another brand for around $20 – 25:00. It’s important to realise the most common form of arthritic aches and pains is osteoarthritis. OA has not been demonstrated to benefit from Omega 3 beyond anti-inflammatory properties, and thence provision of some pain relief in some very few instances. Much is made of the reduction of enzymatic activity responsible for cartilage damage. Less is made of the fact this is not clinically significant.

Rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and psoriatic arthritis inflammation has been shown to respond. Omega 3, available from a number of foods and nuts has a beneficial effect on inflammation. But that hasn’t stopped Ethical Nutrients relentless advertising campaign adorned with the Arthritis Australia logo. If you’re thinking of using these products be sure you have ongoing inflammation or in the case of depression less than moderate. Be wary who you speak to in seeking advice, and please consult your doctor. Promoters of “alternative” income sources operate just as effectively by demoting sound medical treatment.

Also, keep in mind none of these magical concoctions have ever been considered for PBS listing or are cheaper for concession card holders.

Nonetheless, one may take some comfort from recommendation seven below. It directly addresses the absence of evidence loophole, also hinting at public education. Whilst many will hang doggedly onto entrenched habits, this recommendation and the paragraph on page 53 provide a valuable tool for skeptics and evidence based health advocates seeking to educate a largely science illiterate community.

  • Recommendation 7 [Page 5]:

The TGA implement mechanisms to educate and inform the public that listed medicines are not evaluated for effectiveness by the TGA prior to market.

  • Concerns over complimentary medicines and homeopathic products. [Page 53]

The assessment by the TGA of complementary medicines (such as vitamin and mineral supplements, herbal medicines and especially homeopathic products) was raised as an important issue, in both the consultations and the submissions. Contributors were concerned that the recognition of these products by the TGA, and the AUST L number on the label, provided the public with a perception that the claims made for these products had validity.

At both the consultative sessions and in submissions, it was asserted that many therapeutic claims, or claims regarding efficacy and safety made for complementary medicines, cannot be supported from the limited scientific evidence available, while information about possible adverse effects, especially their interaction with conventional medicines, is often lacking. However, complementary medicines are not permitted to state any interactions with conventional medicines in any material that could be considered advertising.

It was accepted that the majority of complementary medicines are low-risk products, but low-risk does not mean no-risk.

Submissions claimed that many complementary medicines are heavily promoted as ‘natural’ or ‘natural alternatives’, with the implication that they are harmless. It was said that this can result in consumers not advising their medical practitioner or pharmacist about their use, and that health practitioners often do not ask about them.

Some submissions sought not just greater transparency on what an AUST L number means with respect to the TGA’s risk-based assessment of safety, quality and efficacy. They asked for changes in labelling and legislation. Some suggested that all labels, promotion and ARTG Public Summary documents of AUST L products should contain the warning, ‘These products have not been evaluated for efficacy by Australian health authorities’.

Other submissions sought changes to the evidence-based requirements for listed medicines, to more clearly distinguish evidence-based complementary medicines from those that were not. Some submissions requested universal evaluation of all therapeutic goods for efficacy, arguing that there was no such thing as complementary medicines, only medicines with evidence of efficacy and those that lacked evidence. In particular, many submissions strongly put the view that the listing of homeopathic products by the TGA be ceased, as it is perceived to provide an unwarranted or inappropriate endorsement of the products that may be no better than a placebo.


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