Dodgy CAM Claims: where does the hype end and health fraud begin?


pharmacy deregulation: shopping trolley full of pills

Pharmacy has a lot to learn from the Sensaslim debacle—but is it interested in doing so? wonders Ian Carr

A short few years ago, one Groundhog Day in the diet industry, a revolutionary product was launched in Australia to much media fanfare.

It came as no surprise to learn of successful clinical trials, a mysterious but miraculous mode of action, no effort on the dieter’s part, and no side effects except for the possible thinning of wallets and the bizarre case of a jockey who shrank so fast he was disqualified from a big race.

As to foul play, no one appeared to suspect a thing. The Therapeutic Goods Administration listed the product. Ads were approved, the media schmoozed, testimonials flowed and the national IQ dropped by a couple of points. Sales went through the roof.

SENSASLIM was a winner. A retailer’s bonanza.

In the fullness of time, it was revealed that Sensaslim was a scam developed by the serial fraudster Peter Foster, who had been entertaining us with similar schemes since Bai Lin Tea in the 1980s.

Mr Foster had attempted to disguise his hand in the aforementioned proceedings. Once unmasked, he was accommodated at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

The whole sorry business was a messy beetroot stain on the shirt of the TGA’s regulatory system and an apparent failure of pharmacy to put professional, scientific and ethical considerations above profit.

Some pharmacists were falling over themselves to purchase a distribution agency for Sensaslim at $60,000. A TGA submission by A/Prof David Newby revealed that 90% of Sensaslim outlets were pharmacies.

Many questions remain unanswered.

How on earth did this product tick all the boxes to get to market?

Unfortunately, history has taught us to expect total inadequacy from the TGA’s “listing” system which is tasked with regulating complementary, alternative and fraudulent medicines. Listing can be achieved without any prior regulator assessment of efficacy.

 Launched in February, 2011, the confidence scam Sensaslim was not delisted until November of that year.

Did none of the pharmacist distributors do any form of due diligence?

Was it not enough that the product’s claims were outrageous and implausible? Or that no clinical trials had been published in peer-reviewed journals?

When consumer superhero Dr Ken Harvey very promptly drew attention to the nature of the Sensaslim promotion—around March 2011—did any pharmacy accept their culpability in the fraud, and cease stocking it?

Despite Sensaslim’s November delisting, pharmacies continued to sell the item, arguing that it had not been recalled!

If the nature of this and previous frauds was sufficient to consign Mr Foster to jail, why were his accomplices—his retailers—let off scot-free?

Was Mr Foster’s crime merely stepping over some invisible and indeterminate line: that his claims were just that little bit too outlandish? After all, pharmacy shelves are still bulging with products whose diet claims are only a cat’s whisker more plausible or evidenced than those of Sensaslim.

Surely, community pharmacy must ask itself: has our current unquestioning and undiscerning support for the supplement industry become a Faustian bargain, threatening our reputation with other health professions and the science-literate public?

For too long, the supplement industry has been basking in the reflected glow of our profession’s hard won public respect.

With the increasing aggression of its slick marketing and lack of evidence for its claims, it is time for a divorce. The time is past for the fallback position of “if it’s legal we’ll sell it.”

The Sensaslim debacle should have ensured that.

The Pharmacy Board of Australia’s Code of Conduct states:

“2.2 Good Care (requires)

“h. providing treatment options based on the best available information and not influenced by financial gain or incentives…

“n. practicing in accordance with the current and accepted evidence base of the health profession, including clinical outcomes…

“p. facilitating the quality use of therapeutic products based on the best available evidence and the patient or client’s needs.”

Given the clarity and intent of this Code, are there any pharmacists seriously willing to put their hand on their heart and attest to the evidence base of “detox” and “immune boosting”, “fat blasting”, magnet therapy, or gummy lollies disguised as health foods?

Let us keep faith with the new generations of pharmacists, whose excellent training in science and the evidence base should not be compromised by the promotion of non-science (or nonsense!) in community pharmacy.

 

 Ian Carr, from Saxby’s Pharmacy in Taree, NSW, is a member of Friends of Science in Medicine.

 

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