Four Corners to cover pharmacists selling vitamins

Source: Four Corners, ABC.

On Monday night, ABC’s investigative program will look into how Australians are spending billions on “unproven” vitamins and supplements stocked in pharmacies

The story follows a recent Channel Nine news story that slammed pharmacy for complementary medicine “kickbacks”.

“The figures are startling – seven out of every ten Australians take some form of vitamin or supplement. We spend more, out of our own pockets, on complementary medicines than we do on prescription drugs,” write journalists Geoff Thompson, Ali Russell and Mary Fallon on introducing the ABC piece.

“Spruiked by sporting heroes, acting icons and celebrity chefs, the industry is worth over four billion dollars. But there is little evidence that many of these products actually work.

“Many pharmacies have shelves stacked high with vitamins and supplements, prominently displayed at the front of their shops, often sold in tandem with proven pharmaceuticals,” they write.

“If they’re after complementary medicines, then I’m happy to provide them,” a pharmacist told the reporters.

They say the program will investigate how these products are regulated and marketed in Australia and whether the credibility of pharmacies threatened by selling them.

“When we look at the most trusted professions, year on year on year, I’m proud to say that at the top are doctors, nurses and pharmacists. So that respect has been hard won.

“That’s put at risk if they’re being seen to promote treatments that increasingly the average consumer recognises might be a load of rubbish,” says the Australian Medical Association.

Swallowing It, reported by Geoff Thompson and presented by Sarah Ferguson, goes to air on Monday 13th February at 8.30pm EDT.

It will be replayed on Tuesday 14th February at 10.00am and Wednesday 15th at 11pm. It can also be seen on ABC News 24 on Saturday at 8.00pm AEST, ABC iview and at

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  1. William

    Unfortunately the registration requirement of these types of products is very weak. The TGA seem unable to control them due to resources and no Sponsor (promoter) will spend the money to get scientifically meaningful supporting data to justify registration as there would be no patent protection.
    The unfortunate fact is that this puts pharmacies in a very difficult situation given that supermarkets and other outlets sell them.
    There are a few products that are known to be contraindicated with some conventional medicines but the bulk of these products do little harm as they are placebos.

    • Ronky

      The reason the TGA are unable to control them has nothing to do with dollars or patent laws. It is because the sponsors of the multibillion dollar fake medicines industry pressure, lobby and bribe our politicians to order the TGA to go softly softly on these products (whilst the sponsors of real medicines have to jump through very demanding hoops.)
      The one time that the TGA dared to try to enforce the law against a fake-medicines manufacturer (Pan), the industry got their pet politicians to slam the TGA as incompetent, slashed its budget, and the TGA’s chief medical officer ( a conscientious and dedicated public servant and one of Australia’s most distinguished pharmacists) was sacked and publicly vilified and his career trashed, as a warning to any other TGA officer who might ever dare to criticise vitamins/supplements in future.

      • Michael Khoo

        The Pan case was handled ineptly and ultimately illegally, and in the end the former owners of Pan were justly vindicated. When the TGA ( or someone therein ) decided that a committee of Pan’s competitors, who were also creditors, should decide the fate of that company, the credibility of any punitive measures was gone. Pan’s actions were deplorable, but the injustice that followed was immoral, and found thus on legal appeal.

        • Ronky

          It is a centuries old principle of justice in Western civilization that an accused man’s peers (or as you frame it “competitors”) have a role in judging an accusation against him, rather than a single monolithic authority having the sole input. A principle which is upheld in the pharmacy profession amongst many others.

          “immoral”, wow. Pan got off on a legal technicality. I’m sure that one could find many real and imagined irregularities in any prosecution of anyone for anything, but they were vigorously rooted out and proclaimed in this instance for political and financial reasons. The fully intended and resulting effect is that the TGA has been turned into a “toothless tiger” when it comes to so-called “complementary” medicines. The rules look almost reasonable on paper, but even what rules there are, are rarely if ever enforced. At worst, the manufacturer of a fake medicine who has committed massive breaches will get a polite note asking him to do better.

          • Michael Khoo

            Australian law allows trial by jury, but sentencing is the duty of the judiciary. That is not a technicality, it is a fundamental principal of law.
            The jury should be impartial, not drawn from the directorships from involved parties. Pan was found guilty, and no doubt about it, yet there was a miscarriage of justice in the penalty.

          • Ronky

            In Australian criminal courts the jury doesn’t have a role in sentencing, but this is an anomaly which is not seen in criminal courts in other jurisdictions sharing our legal heritage, nor in professional tribunals in Australia such as the Pharmacy Board.
            The only miscarriage of justice was that Pan’s penalty was inadequate.

          • Michael Khoo

            The legal technicality in this case was …the law properly and fully applied. The prosecution was inept and the TGA exceeded its authority. One can be judged by ones peers, but the penalty is either mandated by law or decided by the judiciary, Not by a committee of aggrieved parties and the TGA.

      • William

        You seem to have confused what I said. The listing requirements were not the main issue with the PAN contract manufacturer situation that prompted the Compliance branch to suspend their GMP licence. That was prompted by the Travacalm tablets content uniformity issue. the ensuing investigation unearth a lot of other discrepancies and the final issue was the IT records.

  2. David Haworth

    This is not going to go well.

  3. Ronky

    Why the scare quotes around the word “unproven” in your headline?
    It is a simple fact that the therapeutic claims which are so energetically made for these products are unproven (to say the least). If there was any evidence that they actually worked, their manufacturers would submit it to the TGA and have them registered as AUST R (R for REAL, not L for LAME, as The Checkout helpfully put it ) medicines.

  4. geoff

    70% of Australians vote with their money in favour of vitamins, they are sold in Colesworths and bulk vitamin stores with maybe a naturopath out the back and now out of vending machines in Melbourne CBD, as well as half price out of the corporate pharmacy chains without any pharmacist input. Why is this suddenly all the fault of the chemist? I don’t have time to feel guilty over a v marginal part of my pharmacy

    • Johanna Bou-Samra


    • Amin-Reza Javanmard

      How do you two a majority of people that they’re wrong and you’re right?
      It’s a question in sure both health professionals and politicians would like to have the answer to!

    • Michael Collins

      I can see your advertisement ” fraud is only a marginal part of this business”

      • geoff

        I don’t sell homeopathics, don’t have a naturopath, don’t keep weight loss miracle products, don’t order the latest fads from Blackmores or Swisse, have the standard range of vitamins, accept that placebo is a genuine effect…where is the fraud and where is a list of vitamins I should keep and those not to stock?

  5. Ron Batagol

    Let me state at the outset, without having the benefit of viewing the program first hand as yet, that by reading through the ABC News summary of the program , the 4 Corners Report on complementary medicines is going to be be a real “eye opener”!

    Now, you can have a health degree of skepicism about the way that the media reports medical and therapeutic issues, and the methods that they use in their investigations, but the following key stark facts emerge from my reading of the ABC News summary of this program that cannot be ignored.

    In the ABC report of the Choice survey, it stated that:

    1.Out of the “Shadow shoppers” who visited 240 pharmacies complaining of
    stress, “most “were told to buy a complementary product, with 59% being told that “ it worked” and 24% told that it was “scientifically proven”! If that was really the case, how could such baseless and unfounded assertions come from pharmacists or pharmacy staff?

    2.The ABC program summary stated that “last year less than 500 of 11,000 complementary
    medicines on the market were checked by the regulator for compliance,
    and 80% of those tested had compliance breaches!” But, hang on, aren’t we are always told that TGA AUST L –labelled products have to produce evidence of efficacy data.?

    It was also stated stated that TGA found that “the most common problem is that of the companies not holding the efficacy data”.

    So, if they can’t, why are those products still being sold under the TGA- AUST L label??

    3. The ABC program summary stated that “the industry is resisting a system that
    would identify unproven products”, since, “it would make them uncompetitive in the international market”.

    Now, Excuse me for being a bit confused here! But, on the one hand, the (complementary medicines) industry, on its website states that” CMA promotes appropriate industry
    regulation and advancement to ensure consumers have access to complementary
    medicines of the highest quality”. Yet, on the other hand the industry is stated to be resisting a system that would identify unproven products”, since such a disclaimer on Australian
    products would make them uncompetitive in the international market”.

    Hey, run that by me again!!!

    Meanwhile, to me, at a broader level, the most scandalous of all of the issues surrounding the selling of fringe medicine products, is that we allow those homeopathic products which are specifically made for infants and children to be sold in Australia, with the obvious risk that a potentially serious or even life-threatening condition in an infant or child could develop because of the absence of proper medical advice and treatment!.

    • Johanna Bou-Samra

      I believe you might be confusing Aust-R and Aust-L.
      L just refers to the standards of the manufacturing processes. Has nothing to do with efficacy claims at all.

      • Ron Batagol

        Just to clarify this point:

        From TGA info:(
        Under “Listed Medicines”:
        “It is a requirement under Therapeutic Goods Act1989 that sponsors hold information to substantiate all of their product’s claims”.

  6. Philip Smith

    A few points in this one:
    1: Good on someone mystery shopping pharmacies, I believe the Pharmacy Board should be doing so at least twice a year to check pharmacist are compliant to the letter of law.

    2: Pharmacy Guild is being reactive instead of proactive to this.
    The fact is I would love to be able to sit down in my private consult room to discuss the patients problems and different options to help, diet, exercise, count to 10 etc. And be PAID for that service.
    They should have been fighting for something like this for the last 10+years in the 5 year agreements.
    Otherwise expect patients to be sold something to cover the pharmacist time.
    Sadly in this country health expected to be free.

    3:Anyone stressed we send to a Dr who may or may not take 2 weeks to get into and then prescribed a SSRI which takes another 2-6 weeks to work, and serotonin isn’t necessary the problem but cortisol/adrenal fatigue from stress.
    Talking to a psychologist may be the better option if there is one available?
    Does the placebo affect help if the stress is a short term thing?

    4: Link PBS licences to standards eg no homeopathic products and enforce it.

    The list could go on but I’m stressing myself and need some vitamins! 🙂

    • bernardlou1

      If you are a pharmacy guild member then you should communicate with the guild directly as it is a member based organization. George Tambassis was interviewed for 43 minutes by the ABC only to cut out 40 minutes and show 3 minutes. Again find the info from the guild directly and don’t forget to get involved.

  7. Johanna Bou-Samra

    Damned if you do and damned if you don’t! Patients walk in to a pharmacy and expect these products to be there. Personally, I never stocked the “fad” products that companies would try and push, and customers would think that we were then not as progressive as “the big pharmacies”. If it is possible, (and these days it appears increasingly difficult due to staffing levels/profit margins etc) the benefit of stocking them is that at least well trained staff and pharmacists have some chance of providing advice along with the sale, or even discouraging use and then providing something more appropriate. Good luck retailers! Yet another reason I no longer work in that realm.

  8. Vince Dieter

    I’m finding it hard to decide which is the primary issue here. Is it simply that pharmacies are stocking vitamin and herbal products with efficacy that is unproven, and often dis-proven? Or is it that we as pharmacists are recommending these products when we should know better, and have an ethical obligation to the public to do better?

    If interested in doing so, the public will seek out natural remedies and supplements at a variety of retailers, such as health food stores, supermarkets, vending machines, etc, so pharmacies shouldn’t feel guilty simply for stocking them. What is extremely disappointing and unethical however is the large pharmacy chain that heavily advertises and promotes products which have been dis-proven or aren’t proven to work, uses trusted public figures in their advertising campaigns, and instructs young and often naive staff to sell them with confidence as to convince the consumer of their ‘benefit’. Consumers are being robbed blind!

    • Philip Smith

      I think the underlying point that hasn’t been raised from what I have seen by any interest group is the fact a pharmacist is not paid for their time simply talking to the patient about their issues and to the commercial reality of the situation needs to sell products to justify their time with the patient and their wage to the owner of the store.

      Has Choice, Four Corners or any pharmacy representative group got an answer for that?

      • bernardlou1

        Another valid point

      • Ian Carr

        I hear the AMA has been listening to some GPs who are only clearing 80% of their desired income and has suggested that they spend one day a week as a Homeopath, Shaman or Reiki Master. That is sure to make them economic again.

        • Amandarose

          I think a more pertinent comparison is GP’s writing what patients want so they don’t leave the practice. Antibiotics being the biggest issue following by narcotics.

    • bernardlou1

      Good point

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