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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 19577

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Dayton L
Fat chance of getting slim with 'fad pills'
The Australian 2011 May 20

Full text:

A DAMNING report about the effectiveness of over-the-counter weight-loss pills has re-ignited the push by healthcare experts to have such complementary medicines more tightly regulated and monitored.

This month the consumer group Choice reported results of its review of the claims, ingredients and efficacy of a selection of common diet pills, a substantial component of the $789.6 million Australians spend annually to lose weight.

The conclusion: “What we found were products that are not rigorously tested and active ingredients with little or no proof they work. Overall, the current evidence for the effectiveness and safety of the products is pretty sketchy.”

According to Ken Harvey, a public health physician with La Trobe University, the reason ineffective products are permitted for sale is that the Therapeutic Goods Administration is charged only with ensuring they are not harmful. A TGA spokeswoman agrees, but adds: “The TGA recently convened a working party of consumers and industry representatives to ensure that all parties are clear about their regulatory obligations and to explore ways of strengthening compliance.”

Harvey, who is also Choice consumer representative on the TGA’s transparency review panel and it’s complementary medicines regulatory working group, argues the system for allowing these products to be listed for sale must be tightened to ensure they’re not only safe but act as claimed. “The regulator must also be properly funded [to] monitor and compel compliance,” he says.

Harvey raised his concerns this week in the electronic newsletter MJA InSight.

And he’s not alone. Recently, Lesley Campbell, an endocrinologist with the University of NSW and St Vincent’s Hospital Diabetes Centre, wrote to the TGA’s complaints resolution panel, backing a formal complaint Harvey filed about a well-known diet pill.

Campbell took particular aim at the manufacturer’s claim the product works by “desensitsing” sweet taste receptors in the tongue, so people eat less: “Contradicting this is a scientific study . . . where over 50 per cent of people with type 2 diabetes mellitus were shown to have high loss of sweet and sour taste sensation despite 80-90 per cent being overweight or obese.”

She concluded: “People who have weight problems are vulnerable to wasting their money and risking their health with inadequately tested products such as this one.”

Others supporting Harvey’s call are clinical pharmacology professor Ric Day of St Vincent’s Hospital and UNSW, and clinical pharmacologist and toxicologist Anthony Smith, emeritus professor at Newcastle University and past chairman of the TGA’s complementary medicines evaluation committee. Harvey, who has submitted numerous complaints over the years, says: “Inadequate funding [of the TGA] means complaints and adverse reaction reports take far too long, and [this] enables manufacturers to tie up investigation by threats of legal action while they crank out another new fad pill.”


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You are going to have many difficulties. The smokers will not like your message. The tobacco interests will be vigorously opposed. The media and the government will be loath to support these findings. But you have one factor in your favour. What you have going for you is that you are right.
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When truth is unwelcome: the first reports on smoking and lung cancer.