Pressure from a consumer group has prompted the Australian Federal Government to consider the introduction of far more stringent disclosure rules regarding complementary medicines.
The consumer group CHOICE has called for tougher regulation of the industry in order to protect consumers.
CHOICE says complementary medicines make many claims about their product's effectiveness which often have no evident basis and in some cases, complementary medicines can harm consumers' health and current regulatory action does not do enough to protect consumers.
At present the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) classifies medicines into two main categories, 'Listed' and 'Registered', but few consumers understand the difference.
Listed (AUST L) medicines are considered to be 'low risk' by the TGA and while manufacturers are required to have evidence to prove they work they are rarely asked to produce it - this category includes herbal medicines, vitamins and mineral supplements.
Registered (AUST R) medicines are considered to be 'high risk' by the TGA and are subject to stringent testing for safety, quality and efficacy.
This category includes prescription drugs such as antibiotics.
While the TGA claims that 25% of new listing applications are assessed each year for compliance with requirements including evidence to support promotional claims made, CHOICE says such evidence is not assessed for quality.
Neither is any checking done for research data which might contradict the claims made by the company about the effectiveness of the product.
Investigations by CHOICE into weight loss products have revealed that the evidence companies hold is often insufficient to substantiate the claims made and recent research suggests that some top-selling alternative drugs that claim to treat arthritis are also ineffective.
Parliamentary Secretary for Health Jan agrees and says information for consumers is 'patchy' and tougher rules would protect consumers.
CHOICE says because a complementary medicine does not need a prescription it is not a guarantee it is safe and such medicines can cause harm by producing side-effects and interacting with other drugs.
CHOICE says apart from the possible health consequences, financial costs are also a factor and the assumption that a product, because it is on the market, is effective and has been tested, is false and consumers may be wasting money on products which simply do not work.
There are currently more than 16,000 complementary medicines listed with the TGA producing an annual retail turnover of more than $800 million, and CHOICE says many of these do not work.
Of all reports to the Adverse Drug Reactions Unit (ADRU) of the TGA, 3% are for complementary medicines and another 3% for over the counter products.
CHOICE wants complementary medicines to be evaluated in the same way as other pharmaceutical products and suggests the government introduce a green tick symbol, similar to the red tick used by the Heart Foundation, to indicate which drugs have proven benefits.
CHOICE says products which have not been tested should also be marked.
See http://www.choice.com.au/ for more information.