This post is based on an article by Ken Harvey, Associate Professor, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Australia. I took the liberty of slightly modifying his text for the purpose of this blog. The article informs us about the regulation of nonsense which, as I have often argued, is likely to result in nonsense.
Australia’s drugs regulator seems to be endorsing unfounded claims about homeopathy and traditional Chinese medicine as part of its review of how complementary medicines are regulated. In the latest proposed changes, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is looking at what suppliers can claim their products do, known as “permitted indications”. An example of a “low level” permitted indication might be “may relieve the pain of mild osteoarthritis”.
If approved, suppliers will be able to use the permitted indication to market their products. The resulting problem is obvious. For instance, despite the TGA’s Complaints Resolution Panel upholding complaints of a lack of evidence that magnesium and homeopathy “relieve muscle cramps (and restless legs)”, this permitted indication is on its draft list. Other examples of dodgy claims include “supports transport of oxygen in the body”, “regulates healthy male testosterone levels”. The list contains around 140 traditional Chinese medicine indications, such as “Harmonise middle burner (Spleen and Stomach)”, “Unblock/open/relax meridians”, “Balance Yin and Yang”. None of them have any basis in fact or science. There are also around 900 additional indications for unspecified “traditions”.
Traditional medicines are not necessarily safe, as emerging data highlights how common adverse reactions and drug interactions really are. For example, Hyland’s homeopathic baby teething products were recalled by the US Food and Drug Administration and then the TGA because they contained high levels of belladonna alkaloids which caused adverse events in hundreds of babies. In China, out of the 1.33 million case reports of adverse drug event reports received by the National Adverse Drug Reaction Monitoring Center in 2014, traditional Chinese medicine represented around 17.3% (equivalent to around 230,000 cases).
Listed medicines are supposed to contain pre-approved, relatively low-risk ingredients. They should be produced with good manufacturing practice and only make “low-level” health claims for which evidence is held. However, the TGA does not check these requirements before the product is marketed. To safeguard shoppers, consumer representatives, suggested the proposed list of permitted indications should be short and only contain wordings such as, “may assist” or “may help”. For consumers to make an informed purchase, claims based on “traditional use” should always have a disclaimer along the lines of what the US Federal Trade Commission uses for homeopathic products. For example, “This product’s traditional claims are based on alternative health practices that are not accepted by most modern medical experts. There is no good scientific evidence that this product works”.
As I see it, the problem is that the evidence for many of the claims which are about to be allowed is either absent, seriously flawed or negative. Yet, the purpose of any regulation of this kind must be to protect consumers from purchasing ineffective and sometimes dangerous products. Regulators are keen to balance this aim against another aim: helping an industry to thrive. It is never easy to get such a balance right. But to allow nonsense, pseudoscience and overt falsehoods to creep in, must surely be wrong, unethical and illegal.