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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 19598

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
Weight-loss nasal spray saga shows up watchdog
The Australian 2011 July 9

Full text:

LIKE any ripping yarn, the story of the public health physician and the purveyor of a complementary product has it all: lawsuits, threats and intrigue.

More significantly, though, the on-going row between Ken Harvey, an adjunct professor at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, and SensaSlim Australia, the supplier of a nasal spray marketed as an effective weight-loss product, could have critical public and professional implications.

At issue is the effectiveness of the national regulator of complementary products, the Department of Health and Ageing’s Therapeutic Goods Administration, and its gradually evolving relationship with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, not to mention the responsibility of pharmacists in assessing what complementary products they stock.

To begin in the middle: Last Monday, Harvey received an email from Lesley Campbell, an endocrinologist with the University of NSW and St Vincent’s Hospital Diabetes Centre. “I think I should warn you that an aggressive sounding . . . male just rang me, demanding to see me in relation to the defamation case I was involved in,” she wrote.

“He said he had documents to show me I would find interesting. He was very aggressive and wouldn’t say who he was but kept demanding more details from me.”

Campbell tells Weekend Health that she found the “veiled threat” unsettling, rang off and contacted the ACCC.

Why the ACCC? Because, as reported in Weekend Health (June 25-26), the ACCC is taking SensaSlim to court, alleging it engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct under the Trade Practices Act 1974. And Campbell is an expert witness for the prosecution. Although details of the ACCC’s claim against SensaSlim aren’t yet public, Weekend Health understands it relates to claims about the effectiveness of it’s “natural dietary aid”, made online and in interviews fronted by British GP Matthew Capehorn which ran on the Seven Network’s Today Tonight and Network Ten’s The Circle.

SensaSlim legal adviser Terry Harrison did not return calls from Weekend Health on this or any other matter in this story.

The “defamation case” mentioned by Campbell’s unknown caller is likely one SensaSlim brought against Harvey in April.

As Weekend Health (June 18-19) reported, SensaSlim filed its claim for $800,000 in damages following a report published on about a complaint Harvey lodged in March with the TGA regarding SensaSlim’s claims. It’s a report Harvey claims he did not write. The court action immediately halted the TGA’s complaints resolution panel from acting on Harvey’s complaint, which was followed by another from David Newby, a Newcastle University associate professor who specialises in public health and pharmacy.

Since the ACCC’s action against SensaSlim, the plot has thickened. Capehorn distanced himself from SensaSlim, which is suing him in Britain for breach of contract; the ACCC froze SensaSlim’s bank account until an August 31 court hearing; and SensaSlim went into liquidation on July 1.

But on a newly established website the company confirms it’s proceeding against Harvey.

Although the TGA assured Weekend Health in June that it had cancelled SensaSlim’s advertising approvals, the firm continues to promote its product on the new site, claiming the spray is approved by the TGA and the Health Department.

Harvey and Newby both complained to the TGA, the ACCC and the CRP, noting that naming government entities is prohibited.

A TGA spokesperson wasn’t able to clarify the situation as Weekend Health went to press.

Harvey suggests the case highlights “fundamental flaws” in Australia’s system of regulation and promotion of complementary products. Specifically, the TGA’s lack of teeth and a distinction between “listed” and “registered” products that is unclear to the public.

Listed products are assessed by the TGA only for safety and quality, while registered products are also tested for effectiveness.

According to Newby, the case underscores the role of pharmacists in the promotion of complementary products, especially those — such as SensaSlim’s spray — that don’t provide peer-reviewed trial results.

He says more than 90 per cent of outlets selling the spray are pharmacies. “I teach evidence-based practice in pharmacy programs. I’d like my fellow professionals to reflect on this experience and look carefully at products stocked and the degree in which a product in a pharmacy gives it unwarranted legitimacy.”


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Far too large a section of the treatment of disease is to-day controlled by the big manufacturing pharmacists, who have enslaved us in a plausible pseudo-science...
The blind faith which some men have in medicines illustrates too often the greatest of all human capacities - the capacity for self deception...
Some one will say, Is this all your science has to tell us? Is this the outcome of decades of good clinical work, of patient study of the disease, of anxious trial in such good faith of so many drugs? Give us back the childlike trust of the fathers in antimony and in the lancet rather than this cold nihilism. Not at all! Let us accept the truth, however unpleasant it may be, and with the death rate staring us in the face, let us not be deceived with vain fancies...
we need a stern, iconoclastic spirit which leads, not to nihilism, but to an active skepticism - not the passive skepticism, born of despair, but the active skepticism born of a knowledge that recognizes its limitations and knows full well that only in this attitude of mind can true progress be made.
- William Osler 1909