A defamation action against prominent activist Ken Harvey relating to a TGA complaint he made about a complementary product is scheduled for a hearing the Supreme Court of NSW today [Monday 13th].
Dr Harvey, a lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne, hopes to have the case taken by SensaSlim Australia thrown out. In March he submitted a complaint about the promotion of the weight-loss spray SensaSlim to the Complaints Resolution Panel, the TGA, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
In April, the defamation action was launched. The defamatory imputations concern details of the complaint he lodged with the TGA and a report of the complaint that was published on the pharmacy news website Auspharmacist.net.au. A Therapeutic Goods Regulation, called 42ZCAJ, means the TGA has had to stop all investigation of the complaint until the court proceedings have been finalised.
Dr Harvey has said this regulation provides an incentive to a sponsor that is being complained about to initiate a legal action. “They can drag out a court complaint; it can be very expensive for a complainant and often the complainants roll over because they can’t afford to continue the litigation. It’s a very fraught area and it’s not surprising that there aren’t many complaints,” he said on the ABC Radio National show, The Health Report. [MP3 here]. Dr Harvey said it illustrated the failings of the current regulatory system for complementary products. He pointed out that four months after a first complaint was submitted, promotion of the product continued. He said the regulators appeared to be “paper tigers”. He also said the case showed that making complaints to the appropriate authorities was not without risk.
Ken Harvey’s observations with problems about current legislation were;
Some sponsors have actually sued people who have put in complaints with what we call slap writs, strategic litigation against public participation. This can be a litigation which asks for example a stay of a report into these problems or into complaints on the grounds that this information is alleged to be defamatory. In practice what happens is that that stops the complaint resolution panel from hearing complaints because there is an obscure therapeutic goods regulation which says that if after a complaint has been made to a panel a proceeding begins in a court about the subject matter of a complaint the panel cannot deal with the complaint until the proceeding is finally disposed of.
Now that provides a lovely incentive to a sponsor that is being complained about to initiate a legal action which then stops the complaint, lets them continue to market and away they go. And of course they can drag out a court complaint; it can be very expensive for a complainant and often the complainant’s role over because they can’t afford to continue the litigation. It’s a very fraught area and it’s not surprising that there aren’t many complaints.
More so, a survey by the National Prescribing Service showed that 50% of Aussies assume complimentary medicines are independently tested. That means by a third party serving only to provide impartial results. Results that would rightly influence TGA decisions on what makes it to market in a lucrative multi-billion dollar industry. 70% of Aussies use a complimentary medicine at some point. That’s a large number but it’s a static figure. What concerns me is that some people use certain Complimentary and Alternative Medicines – CAM’s – regularly. Some of these, ensconced in the false believe that “natural” medicines are incapable of causing serious harm – if any – consume excessive amounts.
Interestingly, as can be seen below, the TGA does require, and reinforce, that manufacturers clearly label what is in the packaging. To list components of CAM’s. This satisfies TGA requirements that only ingredients on a TGA approved list are present, and accounted for. Some manufacturers go to great lengths to add some pizzazz by ambitiously qualifying what each ingredient supposedly does. You may have read these: “Each tablet/capsule/spoonful/dose contains 30 mg of xxx for added vitality, 43mg of diddlie dee to promote rapid wound healing, 12 mg of trala trala to assist in quality sleep… strong tissues, healthy bones, optimal nutrient uptake, sustained energy, immune integrity”, and so on. They do not have to advise that no independent clinical tests exist.
That means manufacturers of CAM can legally fail to inform the 50% of consumers under the impression of safe and effective testing that they are mistaken. As I’ve mentioned before, in such situations consumers are placing trust in the equivalent of a slogan.
In this light one may reasonably ask what is required to bring a product to market. In other words, how does a company successfully register their product on the Australian register of therapeutic goods to the satisfaction of the TGA prior to selling under the above conditions? Ken Harvey told ABC’s Joel Werner;
They’ve got to show that they are producing them in terms of good manufacturing practice standards. Secondly they’ve got to choose their ingredients from what is a relatively limited list held by the Therapeutic Goods Administration of ingredients they regard as relatively safe. Some sponsors regard this as a bit of a game, so if the ingredients for example in their product don’t happen to be on the list of the TGA you can happily tick whatever you find on a drop down list that you think is similar and the product will get up. And indeed recent audits from the TGA have found that up to 90% of violations when they actually sit down and get a human being to look at what’s been put into the automated system, the advantages from the manufacturers’ or sponsors’ point of view it is very easy to get these products to market.
The sponsor is meant to tick a box to say they hold evidence that the products work. When one checks up and looks at the scientific evidence it’s often very lacking for the claims that are made. The TGA do a limited amount of post-marketing surveillance in which they randomly look at products that have been listed. Those are the ones that they’ve been finding up to 90% violations. The only other constraint is people who put in complaints about complementary medicines and that system has got problems also.
Back to Niamh Mullen;
Also speaking on The Health Report, [a week later – MP3 here] the TGA’s National Manager, Rohan Hammett, said he was not aware that any individual had ever been subject to court action as a result of simply complaining through the usual complaints resolution processes. He also said it was normal practice for administrative proceedings to be put on hold when a higher court was considering a matter.
“Many of the complaints that actually arise about therapeutic products arise between commercial competitors. So one company may complain about another company’s advertising to seek to gain commercial advantage from that and hence there are processes in place that lay out clearly the steps for making an effective complaint. But also, where there are matters for courts to decide, they allow those courts to make those decisions and I think that’s actually an appropriate way for our legal system to operate,” Dr Hammett said.
That particular episode of The Health Report opens with a comment on TGA figures showing 9 out of 10 CAM products breach regulations in some way, with 22% unable to provide the evidence of efficacy they claimed existed. TGA national manager, Rohan Hammett sounded quite the apologist in saying;
Well Joel the data that we released on Friday is the sort of data that we’re hoping to make more available in the future to people about the compliance activities that the TGA undertakes. And these data do raise significant concerns about the current rates of compliance amongst the complementary medicine sector. I have to say though Joel, just to perhaps provide some context to that, many of the breaches in the compliance are of a relatively minor nature, people may for instance be using the wrong size font on a package of their complementary medicines in breach of a guideline that says the font has to be a certain size.
Or they may in fact have a document missing from their application. That is technically a breach but actually doesn’t affect the quality of the product in any way.
Somehow I don’t think consumers are worried that boasts of Xmg of diddlie dee providing strong bones or an aid to concentration may be written (aptly I might add) in large Comic Sans and not properly sized Ariel font. No, I’m pretty sure the 22% evidence vacuum trumps not having to fumble for ones glasses to read bollocks.
To put that in perspective, a large warehouse type chemist I visited had a CAM aisle easily 25 metres long. With shelves on both sides that’s 5 metres of products that do not have evidence backing the claims adorning their labels. In major suburban pharmacies one in five of those splendidly displayed products cannot be trusted.
There are demonstrably many benefits to Ken Harvey taking the actions he has over this unusual failure to regulate in the interests of community safety. To get a feel for the apathy and impotence of the TGA compare these two comments from different Health Report episodes. On May 16th Ken Harvey stated;
….. Why hasn’t anything happened? Well clearly I think there are two reasons. Firstly the complementary medicine industry is very reluctant to have anything happen because they are making good money doing what they’re doing. And the second problem I think is the Therapeutic Goods Administration. It’s a risk-based organisation, it can only put its limited resources where it thinks the big problems are and it would regard ripping off consumers as less of a problem than for example some prescription medicines which have really nasty side effects which can kill you.
However, not concentrating at all on the problem of complementary medicines has let the problem blow out. I might say there’s one other problem that people have perceived and that is that the TGA is 100% funded now by industry fees and again some people have unkindly suggested that if you’ve got an organisation 100% funded by industry that it may be more reluctant to take measures that would impact on industry profitability and indeed on the TGA’s own finances.
The following week this was brought to the attention of Rohan Hammett. He responded with spin;
Well Joel with respect to Dr Harvey those claims are absolute nonsense. The TGA is an organisation established by the Australian government to fulfil a public health role. I get up every day as do the other 600 employees here to improve public health in this country by making sure that people have access to safe and effective therapeutic products in a timely manner.
The fact that the industry has to pay fees to recover the cost of that regulation is a common practice across Commonwealth regulatory agencies. That removes the burden of the costs of that regulation from the tax payer. Why should the tax payer have to fund the regulatory costs for a commercial sector that is then going to generate profits from that regulation?
So just to emphasise that the TGA’s key stakeholders are clearly the Australian people and that is who we work for and our role is very much to provide public health benefits for them.
So to be clear, the TGA is most certainly 100% funded by the industry that’s failing to adhere to regulations. What Hammett thinks is nonsense is that this situation influences the capacity of the TGA to act with impartial conviction. He perhaps should have stopped there. The rest of his commentary appears to be special pleading.
In fact, the burden of proof is of course on the TGA to show that it’s present funding source is not a conflict of interest. That in my mind has not been done.