A triumph of hype or self-care?

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Natural health products were the most popular OTC medicines sold in pharmacies in 2015-16, according to latest AIHW stats

Among over-the-counter products sold in pharmacies, which do not require a prescription, natural health products were the largest selling items in 2015–16 ($1.4 billion).

This category comprises vitamins and minerals, herbal medicines, homeopathic preparations and probiotics.

According to latest statistics published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) in its Australia’s Health 2018 report, the natural health market grew by 21% over the past few years and also led sales for the previous period (2014-15).

Analgesics were the second largest selling group for 2015-16 ($537 million), followed by cough and cold, digestive care, and first aid/sports medicine.

Source: AIHW

Public health physician Dr Ken Harvey says the results reflect “a triumph of hype, celebrity endorsement and regulatory inaction over science”.

“These results reflect the large amount of money spent on marketing these products … and the failure of the regulator (the TGA) to act on misleading and deceptive claims that target common insecurities of the public,” argues Dr Harvey.

However the Australian Self Medication Industry (ASMI) says the results show natural health products are used by many Australians in practising self care.

“ASMI wants all Australians to have the tools necessary to practice self care with confidence,” a spokesperson for ASMI told the AJP.

“Non-prescription medicines, which includes complementary medicines, are used by many Australians to responsibly enhance health and wellbeing, as well as to treat self-limiting conditions.

“Responsible use and access to medicines is key to practising self care, alongside other factors such as healthy eating, physical activity, good hygiene and risk avoidance, to name a few.

“The strong growth in 2015/16 is similar to overseas trends and we encourage all Australians to read the label, use products as directed, and if unsure, to ask a healthcare professional.”

Dr Harvey isn’t completely against all natural health products, pointing out that there are some vitamins and supplements that can make a positive difference.

“There are a few! For example, folate in women wanting to get pregnant (preconception) and in pregnancy, iodine in pregnancy and while breastfeeding, Vitamin D in people with deeply pigmented skin, or chronic and severe lack of sun exposure for cultural, medical, occupational or residential reasons,” he highlights.

“But most Australians can get what they need most of time from a healthy diet containing fish, fruit and vegetables. Supplements are no substitute for the latter.

“And there is more and more evidence that many benefits touted are illusory.”

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