Swisse pushes Coalition to reduce role of Therapeutic Goods Administration

Melissa Davey
Multivitamins company Swisse recommended that Malcolm Turnbull’s government relinquish its oversight of complaints about complementary and alternative products. Photograph: Jeff Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

The multivitamins giant Swisse has called on the federal government to embed staff with knowledge of complementary and alternative medicines in Australian embassies overseas to help grow the sector’s overseas market, particularly in Asia.

In its pre-budget submission to the federal government, Swisse wrote that: “Specific personnel with knowledge and expertise in complementary medicines and a mandate to support the industry are necessary in Australian embassies.

“This will ensure Australia can capitalise on its bilateral trade agreements and the significant growth potential the complementary medicines sector represents, both for itself and also for associated industries in its supply chain.”

This would also help contribute to Australia’s culture of innovation, Swisse said, in an appeal to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation agenda.

Swisse also recommended that the federal government relinquish its oversight of complaints about complementary and alternative products and instead allow the multibillion-dollar industry to self-regulate.

In its pre-budget submission to the federal government, Swisse suggests that, by eliminating what it deemed to be “unnecessary regulation” and giving the regulatory framework a “refresh”, the government could encourage innovation and economic growth.

One of Swisse’s four recommendations suggests the government should: “Allocate responsibility for regulating advertising claims, compliance and complaints of the complementary medicines sector from the Therapeutic Goods Administration [TGA] to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission [ACCC] and Advertising Standards Bureau.”

This would remove the need for the current regulations, Swisse wrote.

“There is no longer a need for the TGA to oversee advertising claims when there a mature consumer protection system in place,” the submission said. “The TGA risk management approach that is appropriate for the public health risks associated with pharmaceuticals is not consistent with the public health risks associated with complementary medicines.

“It has had a stifling impact on competition and productivity within the complementary medicines industry.”

Dr Ken Harvey, a specialist in evidence-based medicine, quit his job as an adjunct professor with La Trobe University in 2014 after the university did a $15m deal with Swisse to develop a research centre.

He said the ACCC would never have the capacity to investigate the thousands of complaints the TGA received about complementary and alternative medicines each year.

He added that the federal government’s medicines and medical devices review had rattled multivitamin companies, given one of the recommendations was that the TGA be given stronger compliance powers against misleading advertising.

“The multivitamins industry will do anything and everything to influence government decision-making,” Harvey said. “However, they will have more trouble doing so given some of the recommendations around advertising from the medicines and medical devices review will require legislative change, which means it will go to parliamentary committees.

“So there will be more open debate and more questions asked of the industry.”

He said the “vast bulk” of the 11,000 complementary and alternative products on the market in Australia had no or weak evidence for their effectiveness. The idea that vitamins could be taken to prevent poor health was “marketing hype and lacks good evidence,” he added.

A specialist in evidence-based medicine and a a professor of public health at Bond University in Queensland, Chris Del Mar, said he would be concerned about allowing the industry to self-regulate.

“Obviously it is a big industry that is involved here, that is very keen to make life easier for themselves, and at the moment there is a new wave of doctors being concerned that the use of vitamins is grossly in excess of their benefits,” he said.

“It’s not just that people waste their money on vitamins or take excess amounts. It’s that people think they’re doing something to improve their health when they’re doing something useless.

“We know Australians spend billions on these products every year.”