Pharmacy lambasted for CM ‘kickback scandal’

Ian Carr. Image courtesy Channel Nine.

A Channel Nine news story has slammed pharmacy for complementary medicine “kickbacks,” but Guild says the story only referred to unremarkable commercial arrangements

The story, “Kickbacks scandal rocks pharmacy industry,” claimed “trusted pharmacists” were being pressured to upsell certain products with kickbacks from suppliers.

“Like any business, pharmacies need to make money,” said reporter Kate Creedon.

“So to boost profits, they’re offered deals by supplement companies to get discounted and free stock.

“Nine news has sighted an email from one rep, stipulating how many shelves would need to display that brand exclusively for the pharmacy to be eligible for the deal.”

The story is also critical of CM brand training for pharmacists and pharmacy assistants, “with some instructed to push brands with which pharmacy franchises have arrangements”.

A spokesperson for the Pharmacy Guild told the AJP that it does not condone nor endorse any inappropriate or unethical practices in relation to complementary products or any other medicines, a stance which it also highlighted in the Nine story.

“However, it should be noted that the recent Channel Nine news story was bereft of any primary source or evidence of any such behaviour, and instead referred only to perfectly normal commercial arrangements in which pharmacy businesses try to acquire stock at the best possible price,” the spokesperson says.

“There was no evidence provided of any inappropriate activity.”

The story also quoted Friends of Science in Medicine’s Ian Carr, a Taree pharmacist, who told Ms Creedon that “there’s very little actual evidence behind the claims made”.

The Guild believes it is essential that consumers have access to objective, informed advice about complementary medicines, says the organisation’s spokesperson.

“A range of complementary medicines are available through most community pharmacies in Australia, where pharmacists and pharmacy staff play an important role in providing advice to consumers about these products,” they say.

“Pharmacists, as highly trusted health professionals, have a duty of care to be aware of available clinical evidence that supports the therapeutic and marketing claims made about all products sold in their pharmacies.”

Mr Carr told the AJP today that pharmacists often have a tough time explaining the evidence base for their chosen CM – or the lack thereof – to consumers after they have selected a product.

“It’s hard to get that sensible message across when they’ve already had the ad message given to them in only 15 or 30 seconds, and then we’ve got to undo that,” he says.

“This is even if you get to them, because they just grab it off the shelf, or it may be available in Coles. And now they’re talking about these supplements being available in vending machines.

“It all tracks back again to the fact that the TGA takes the attitude that this stuff is harmless, but my argument is not whether the stuff is harmless, but that it confuses people’s thinking about what’s good and appropriate and what will work for their health.”

Mr Carr also says that he understands why banner groups planogram and advertise CMs, but “in my opinion, it doesn’t have to be done that way.”

Watch the Nine News story here.

Image: Channel Nine.

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  1. Ian Carr

    In one sense, I agree with the Guild’s defence that some of Channel Nine’s “kickback” allegations are “perfectly normal commercial arrangements.” You buy more, you get it cheaper. However, as usual, there is more to this story than a 2-minute news bulletin grab will allow.
    For example, I am aware of CM “deals” which do not simply deal in volumes, but specify which products MUST be stocked and displayed. This behaviour by supplement marketers is an outrage, as it does not allow us as professionals to follow our Code of Conduct and refuse to stock and promote rubbish.

    Another threat to our professional standing is the ongoing support of the CM marketers by pharmacy chains. Discounted supplements are advertised over acres of newsprint and catalogues; metres of wall space are devoted to CMs. And — please correct me if I”m wrong — the franchisee pharmacist seems to have no input as to what is stocked or advertised. Though he may be a willing franchise participant, these are deals done between Head Office and the suppliers.

    Perhaps the Guild might consider that “perfectly normal commercial arrangements” are not appropriate if we are talking about items which are not normal items of commerce. CMs make therapeutic claims — which are often false, misleading or exaggerated. It’s our job as pharmacists to cut through the bullshit and favour our clients with the truth.

    After that tirade, I’m off to settle my nerves with some Rescue Remedy. Or distilled water.

    • Daniel Roitman

      You’ll be fine, Saturn is in retrograde which should realign your energy healing shakra.

    • Jarrod McMaugh

      Ian, I understand where you are coming from, especially in cases where the front-of-shop mix is determined by someone other than the managing pharmacist. The pharmacist always has the ability to remove items from sale, though.

      For deals that involve keeping an entire range (of anything, not just therapeutic products) there is always the take-it or leave-it option.

      For instance, I don’t stock any homeopathy. I don’t stock anything that would fit the “today tonight/A Current Affair” news cycle (news being used very loosely there).

      In instances where a company requires a pharmacy too keep all of their range, or none of it, the decision is always very straight forward.

      I have not accessed therapeutic ranges because part of the deal required me to utilise the company’s schedule 4 range as well.

      I might also point out that FoSiM has a bad reputation for acting “scientifically” – by this I mean many of the very vocal members of FoSiM are closer to demagogues than anything else, in that they form an opinion, then rely on evidence that supports this opinion. Not a great example of the scientific method.

      • Anne Todd

        I always had more problems dealing with the cosmetic companies must take promotions than any of the vitamin CM companies. CMs let me pick and choose the ranging to suit my customer demographics and my preferred products. With the big cosmetic companies it was must take multiple promotions, fully stocked stand all ranges even if only one of their 3-5 types of lipsticks was popular – let alone the 15 shades! Remember taking 3 years to sell out a discontinued hideous green khol stick to have it turn up again in a “colour story” promotion Thanks Revlon.

        Anne Todd… Disclaimer once purchased enough Australis stock to get a free microwave oven Doward gift packs to get coffee machine…etc.

        • Ronky

          Surely you can see the big difference between being forced to sell an unpopular lipstick shade and a pharmacist being forced (by a non-health professional) to sell an ineffective and possibly harmful “medicine”?

          • Anne Todd

            Yes I can, what I was saying is in my years as an owner I was never pressured by CM companies but did have the hard word put on my stocking choices by other ranges/reps/wholesalers. And trust me as the one managing the money in and out of a business having to hold 50 shades of dull lipsticks with no return option vs being able to pick the vitamins you are ranging wins every time.

            Also as an employee pharmacist (as a once young or now as a much less young one) I have never been forced to sell anything, even if the product being stocked was dubious from a clinical perspective.
            In fact over the years I have been able to get several owners not to stock products, dodgy diet sprays in the 90s come to mind in particular.

  2. Andrew

    “A spokesperson for the Pharmacy Guild told the AJP that it does not condone nor endorse any inappropriate or unethical practices in relation to complementary products or any other medicines”

    The community remembers.

  3. geoff

    I didn’t see Channel 9 ‘News” but usually advise customers to ignore hard hitting in depth 7 second health advice on TV. This is another situation where all community pharmacies cop flack over the actions of large corporates trying to maximise sales- maybe the criticism should be targeted more specifically ( oh, if they didn’t spend so much on advertising).
    I can understand manufacturers bundling deals to get facings of slow movers and new products and sometimes you have to buy a few dud lines to get a deal on the good sellers to remain competitive….doesn’t mean you promote them or that it is a large percentage of the buy, often lines are used to introduce more appropriate items or they just go out of date.
    The wiles of the marketing dept in a pharmacy franchise are often incomprehensible to a pharmacist and often ignored…all up a bit of a filler storey when Trump gets boring and there are no videos of kittens to fill the news

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