Pharmacy Council’s Code of Ethics Proposal: Submissions Roundup

Pharmacy Council’s Code of Ethics Proposal: Submissions Roundup

The Pharmacy Council has proposed a change to their code of ethics, here’s everything you need to know.

EDIT 22/10/2015: When this article was published it didn’t include details of the Pharmaceutical Society’s submission. Since then, I have spoken with their Chief Pharmacist Advisor, Bob Buckham, about their submission. For more details, see my article summarising it: Pharmacists Don’t Want to Sell Unproven Products

The Pharmacy Council is the statutory body responsible for setting standards of conduct and competence of pharmacists in New Zealand. They have a code of ethics, the Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011, which currently includes a section that requires pharmacists must:

6.9
Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.

Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011 (Pharmacy Council)

In August, the Pharmacy Council proposed to change this section of the code of ethics. The first part of the proposed change is to remove the requirement for complementary therapies and other healthcare products to be supported by credible evidence of efficacy before they can be promoted or supplied in a pharmacy. The other part is to add a requirement that purchasers must be given enough information about these products to make an informed choice:

6.9a
Only supply or promote any medicine or herbal remedy where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9b
Only supply any complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when sufficient information about the product can be provided in order for the purchaser to make an informed choice with regard to the risks and benefits of all the available treatment options.

Proposed supplementary wording to clause 6.9 of the Code of Ethics 2011 (Pharmacy Council)

As part of this proposal, the Pharmacy Council called for submissions from stakeholders. In my last article on this topic, I discussed the submission from the Society for Science Based Healthcare, of which I am a co-founder. Although the extended deadline for submissions passed last Friday, various other groups have made their views on this proposal clear and made their own submissions.


The Society for Science Based Healthcare

The Society for Science Based Healthcare is a group of consumer advocates, scientists, and medical professionals. I am one of its co-founders. The submission from the Society for Science Based Healthcare proposed a modified version of the new wording:

6.9a
Only supply any medicine or herbal remedy where there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9b
Only promote any complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9c
Only supply or promote any medicine, herbal remedy, complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety, when there is not credible evidence to suggest that the product lacks efficacy.
6.9d
Provide sufficient information about any medicine, herbal remedy, complementary therapy or other healthcare product product in order for the purchaser to make an informed choice with regard to the risks and benefits of all the available treatment options.

Pharmacy Council Code of Ethics Proposal (Society for Science Based Healthcare)

After lodging a complaint last year with the Pharmacy Council regarding an incident in which a patient was misled by an Auckland pharmacy that recommended and sold them a homeopathic product, both the Pharmacy Council and the Health and Disability Commissioner refused to enforce the code by telling the pharmacy not to promote or sell the homeopathic product, despite the fact that it was not supported by any credible evidence of efficacy.

In principle, the society would oppose the change. However, having have found that the existing section of the code is disregarded rather than enforced, the society decided it was best to try to turn the code into something the Pharmacy Council might be willing to enforce that could still offer protection to patients.

It is currently widespread practice for New Zealand pharmacies to supply and promote healthcare products which are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy, such as homeopathic products.

Pharmacy Council Code of Ethics Proposal (Society for Science Based Healthcare)

This view that the current code of ethics is commonly disregarded has been shared among many of the other submissions that have been made public, and appears to be supported by a statement made by the Pharmacy Council chairman Dr Andrew Bary in a recent article on Stuff.co.nz:

But Pharmacy Council chairman Dr Andrew Bary said the rules as they stood were “unworkable” and many pharmacists, including himself, were already selling complementary medicines, even if they didn’t believe their claims.

Doctors and pharmacists clash over complimentary medicines (Stuff.co.nz)

The Society for Science Based Healthcare’s submission also argued that there are both potential risks and potential benefits to these products being sold in pharmacies. The proposed new wording is intended to provide the best risk/benefit profile for patients.

On the one hand, if these products are available in a pharmacy consumers will be more likely to visit a pharmacy to purchase them. This can put them in a position where a pharmacist is able to provide them with evidence-based advice, so they can make an informed decision on purchasing the best product for whatever problem they are experiencing. If the product were not available in a pharmacy, they may instead seek it from a source which would not provide them with this information, or which may misinform them.

On the other hand, when a product is available in pharmacies it is likely to lead consumers to believe that it is an effective, evidence-based product. This is often used as a selling point by products which are not supported by evidence. For example, the homeopathic product No-Jet-Lag advertises itself as being available at “Most chemists nationwide“. In this way, pharmacists stocking products without credible evidence of efficacy can also contribute to an increase in consumer demand for them. For all intents and purposes, supplying a product in a pharmacy is also a form of promotion.

Pharmacy Council Code of Ethics Proposal (Society for Science Based Healthcare)

When it was submitted this submission had a list of 36 supporters, 24 of whom are healthcare professionals or PhD scientists


The NZ Skeptics

The NZ Skeptics’ submission opposed the change. It also proposed that the Pharmacy Council maintain a list of products or product categories that are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy, to make it easier for pharmacists to determine which products could or could not be sold in pharmacies. The motivation for this recommendation is similar to one made in the Society for Science Based Healthcare’s complaint last year:

As a result of this complaint, we want pharmacists to have the opportunity to do the right thing and fulfill their ethical obligations. In order to achieve this, we suggest that the Pharmacy Council consider the following courses of action:

  1. To assist pharmacies in evaluating whether or not a healthcare product is supported by credible evidence of efficacy, the Pharmacy Council should develop and publish guidelines regarding what constitutes credible evidence of efficacy. This need not be a strict requirement so much as a useful guide that pharmacists can use to establish a consistent minimum standard of evidence.

NaturoPharm Wartoff Complaint (Society for Science Based Healthcare)

To inform their submission, the NZ Skeptics conducted a “secret shopper” exercise with their members to discover what actually happens when consumers talked to pharmacy staff about homeopathy.

We found that around half of the pharmacies visited had staff that were willing to promote or supply homeopathic products without adequately explaining the current lack of evidence.

It seems that some pharmacies did not stock homeopathy, but a significant number of others did have homeopathic products on their shelves and in most of these pharmacies staff were willing to offer homeopathy as a viable treatment, with no information offered about a lack of efficacy.

With the code being an important patient protection mechanism, we’re disappointed to see it so readily disregarded.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council’s 2015 Code of Ethics Consultation (NZ Skeptics)

The NZ Skeptics have made these reports available on their website: Pharmacy Homeopathy Reports. As well as this, they conducted a non-exhaustive search for New Zealand pharmacies promoting homeopathic products online, and made the results of this available too: Pharmacies Promoting Homeopathy.

One argument that is used to support pharmacies selling products with no credible evidence of efficacy is that, if pharmacists were prevented from selling these products, then patients’ freedom of choice would be infringed. This argument has been made, for example, by Pharmacy Council chairman Dr Andrew Bary when he was interviewed on Radio New Zealand about this proposed change:

You know, I think we need to respect the wish of the consumer from time to time, so you know, individuals have their own cultural and traditional beliefs around certain alternative and complementary therapies… So I think that the key thing is that we are setting out that we think pharmacists should be informed about the efficacy of the evidence for each individual product when they are promoting and making recommendations to people. But at the same time, we need to put the person at the centre, the consumer, and respect their wishes and desires.

Pharmacy Council moves to change code of ethics over homeopathy (Radio New Zealand)

The argument has also been put forth by pharmacists that sell these products in their pharmacies:

“Many patients believe homeopathy has been of benefit and they should be given the freedom to choose it if they want, [Lincoln Mall Pharmacy owner pharmacist Caleb Townsend] says.”

Pharmacists support patient choice with homeopathy (Pharmacy Today)

It may be worth noting that Lincoln Mall Pharmacy is one of the ones on the NZ Skeptics’ list of pharmacies promoting homeopathy online, and the Pharmacy Today article notes they have “qualified homeopaths onsite”. An Advertising Standards Authority complaint laid by Society for Science Based Healthcare member Simon Clark was settled in June when the pharmacy opted to remove claims that homeopathic products can “treat a wide range of illnesses and concerns” from an online listing.


Ben Albert et al.

Dr Ben Albert is a paediatric endocrinologist who researched fish oil for his PhD, which made headlines earlier this year after his research was published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports. Along with five other doctors, he has written a submission to the Pharmacy Council opposing the change.

Despite coming from a group of individuals rather than a professional society, the submission boasts the impressive support of 180 medical doctors, predominantly senior consultants, representing all medical specialties. It also has the support of the NZ Society of Paediatric Surgeons and the NZ Resident Doctors Association, which represents over 90% of the resident medical officer workforce in New Zealand. Its authors are:

  1. Dr Benjamin B. Albert FRACP, Paediatric Endocrinologist and Clinical Research Fellow. Liggins Institute, University of Auckland.
  2. Professor Wayne S. Cutfield MD FRACP. Professor of Paediatric Endocrinology, and Director of A Better Start National Science Challenge, Liggins Institute, University of Auckland. Past president, Australasian Paediatric Endocrinology Group. Past president, Asia Pacific Paediatric Endocrine Society.
  3. Professor Paul L. Hofman FRACP. Professor of Paediatric Endocrinology, Director of the Maurice and Nessie Paykel Clinical Research Unit, Liggins Institute, University of Auckland. President Asia Pacific Endocrine Society. Past president Australasian Paediatric Endocrinology Group.
  4. Professor Alistair J. Gunn PhD FRACP. Professor of Physiology and Paediatrics, and Head of Department of Physiology, University of Auckland. Paediatric Endocrinologist.
  5. Associate Professor Timothy Kenealy PhD FRANZCGP, Professor of Integrated Care, University of Auckland. General Practitioner.
  6. Dr Olivia J. Albert FANZCA. Anaesthetist, Royal Hospital for Women, Sydney, Australia.

The specific recommendations made in their submission are:

  • Reject the proposed change, or reinsert the requirement for “credible evidence of efficacy” in to clause 6.9b. We suggest this wording.

    • where there is no credible evidence to suggest a specific complementary and/or alternative medicine/product is effective, or the proposed effect of the product is scientifically implausible pharmacists should not promote or recommend its use
  • Current ethical standards should be enforced
  • Treatments and products that do not have “credible evidence of efficacy” such as homeopathic remedies, ear candles and magnet based therapies should be listed by the PCNZ, with the intention that they are not sold in pharmacies.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Ben Albert et al.)

The last recommendation echoes that of the NZ Skeptics, aiming to simplify things for pharmacists by providing a list of products or product categories which clearly are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy.

The rationale for their opposition to the change is laid out clearly and concisely in the submission:

The suggested change is in opposition to the general principles of the code, and the expectations of the public and other members of the multidisciplinary science based healthcare team.

This change would make it permissible within the ethical code for pharmacists to promote and sell products that are unproven and even scientifically implausible. We believe that this is harmful and wrong.

the current code should be enforced, not amended.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Ben Albert et al.)

They raise another counterargument to the “freedom of choice” argument, noting that pharmacists should be wary of their conflict of interest between advising against patients purchasing products that aren’t supported by evidence and selling more products to generate more profit for the pharmacy:

pharmacists (like many health providers) have a conflict of interest when they sell and give advice about health products from which they make profit. There is evidence that financial pressures do impact the clinical decisions of pharmacists1. One of the reasons that a code of ethics is important is because it provides guidance where the interests of pharmacists and patients differ.

1 Chaar B, Brien Ja, Krass I. Professional ethics in pharmacy: the Australian experience. International Journal of Pharmacy Practice. 2005;13(3):195-204

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Ben Albert et al.)

They also raise the issue that products sold in pharmacies are likely to be seen as effective by the public, which can lead to harm when they are sold in pharmacies:

Many patients will assume that the pharmacist endorses the health products sold in the pharmacy as scientifically supported. But many pharmacists sell products that are known to be ineffective, such as homeopathic remedies3 or potentially harmful, such as ear candles4. Selling such products conflicts with the principles of the current code5 as it reduces patient autonomy. The patient that wrongly assumes that a health product is scientifically supported is ill-prepared to make an informed decision.

3 Ernst E. A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2002;54(6):577-82.
4 Seely DR, Quigley SM, Langman AW. Ear Candles-Efficacy and Safety. The Laryngoscope. 1996;106(10):1226-9.
5 Zealand PCoN. Code of ethics 2011: Pharmacy Council of New Zealand; 2011 [cited 1015 17 September]. Available from: http://www.pharmacycouncil.org.nz/cms_show_download.php?id=200.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (Ben Albert et al.)

Although this submission has not been made public, it shares much in common with a letter to the editor from the same authors that was published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

I spoke with Dr Albert to ask what motivated him to take action on the Pharmacy Council’s proposal, here’s what he had to say:

For years it has bothered and surprised me that products that are entirely implausible such as magnets and homeopathic remedies, and harmful products such as ear candles are sold in pharmacies. When scientifically trained and trusted health professionals promote and sell such treatments they betray the trust of the public who will quite reasonably assume such products are endorsed by the pharmacist and supported by scientific evidence. The current PCNZ code of ethics indicates that it is unethical and unprofessional for pharmacists to sell these products. The right course of action is to stop selling them. To instead change the code to redefine ethical behaviour appears cynical and makes the sale of unsupported or harmful treatments no less wrong.

Dr Ben Albert


The New Zealand Medical Association

The New Zealand Medical Association is New Zealand’s largest medical organisation, representing over 5,500 medical professionals. The New Zealand Medical Association’s submission strongly opposes the change. They echo the views of other submissions that in the face of widespread behaviour at odds with the current code, the way forward should be change behaviour to match the code rather than to relax the code to permit existing behaviour:

The NZMA is strongly opposed to the above proposed change

We do not believe that pharmacists should be selling ‘treatments’ that are known to be ineffective or lack evidence of effectiveness. We contend that doing so is unethical. While this practice may be happening under the present Code, we believe that the PCNZ should be seeking ways to enforce the Code rather than amend it to accommodate this practice.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (New Zealand Medical Association)

The NZMA acknowledged the trust placed in pharmacists by the public, and how this affects the way in which products sold in pharmacies are perceived:

It is our view that allowing pharmacists to sell ineffective therapies or products is contrary to the profession’s own aspirations, including of trustworthiness and professionalism. More broadly, it undermines the social contract between the public and the profession. The pharmacist is trusted by patients and other members of the health care team precisely because of their scientific training. The sale of products by pharmacists that knowingly do not work is inconsistent with the high trust health care professional the public expects and the profession requests.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (New Zealand Medical Association)

The NZMA also deals with the “freedom of choice” argument in a similar way to the other submissions:

We understand that patient autonomy and freedom of choice are being advanced as the rationale for the proposed rewording to the Code. We believe these are spurious arguments on which to remove the requirement for “credible evidence of efficacy” for pharmacists to sell complementary therapies or other healthcare products. Freedom of choice should not transcend the health and well-being of the patient. Furthermore, such products are already available to people to purchase at other outlets, such as health food shops and supermarkets.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (New Zealand Medical Association)

The NZMA raised some new concerns, regarding the potential impacts of the proposed change:

The proposal is of all the more concern given the current lack of regulation of complementary therapies in New Zealand.

We are also concerned at the impact of the proposal on equity. Patients that are least likely to consult a doctor could end up being even more likely to purchase costly ‘healthcare’ products from their pharmacy that do not work.

The proposal also undermines the wider health sector’s efforts to improve health literacy.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (New Zealand Medical Association)

The NZMA’s final recommendation is for the requirement for credible evidence of efficacy to be kept and enforced, and until it is enforced for the newly proposed requirement for supplying sufficient information to make an informed choice to bridge the gap:

Ideally, we would like to see pharmacists end the sale of complementary therapies or other healthcare products for which there is no credible evidence of efficacy (ie, meet their obligations under the existing Code). Until such time, we would suggest the addition of a subclause to 6.9 which addresses the need to provide sufficient information for herbal remedy, complementary therapy or other healthcare product. Accordingly, we proposed the following wording:

6.9
Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9a
When supplying a herbal remedy, complementary therapy or other healthcare product, sufficient information about the product must be provided in order for the purchaser to make an informed choice with regard to efficacy of the product and the risks and benefits of all available treatment options.

Submission to the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand (New Zealand Medical Association)


The Pharmacy Guild

The Pharmacy Guild represents pharmacy owners in New Zealand. The Pharmacy Guild’s submission supports the Pharmacy Council’s proposed change:

We support the Council’s intentions of the proposed changes to clause 6.9 of the Code of Ethics 2011 (the Code).

Consultation on the proposed wording to clause 6.9 of the Code of Ethics 2011 (Pharmacy Guild)

The primary motivation for this support seems to be a combination of the “freedom of choice” argument I described above, and the potential for benefit described in the Society for Science Based Healthcare’s submission:

We believe that if pharmacists were prevented from selling natural products then patients wanting these products would continue to source them from somewhere. We consider that it is far safer for consumers to approach pharmacists for advice and that they purchase supplies of complementary medicines from a pharmacy rather than over the internet for instance, where the quality and safety of a product cannot always be guaranteed.

Consultation on the proposed wording to clause 6.9 of the Code of Ethics 2011 (Pharmacy Guild)


As well as these submissions, I have been made aware of a few more, mainly submitted by individuals. Of those I am aware of, such as Edward Linney’s submission, they are predominantly opposed to the change for many of the reasons described in these submissions. I am aware of one instance of an ex-pharmacist who supports that change who is now a practising homeopath and, scarily, was previously employed by the Pharmacy Council as their Professional Standards Advisor even while they were practising as a homeopath. However I don’t know if they have made a submission.

I’m also aware that the Pharmaceutical Society has made a submission. Whereas the Pharmacy Council regulates pharmacists, the Pharmacy Guild and Pharmaceutical Society are membership organisations; the Guild represents pharmacy owners and the Society represents pharmacists in general. Although I have tried to get in touch with them, I haven’t seen the Pharmaceutical Society’s submission and can’t provide comment. I will update this article if that changes.

However, I am aware that the Pharmaceutical Society has close ties to the New Zealand Medical Association, even to the point where they have a joint agreement for members to abide by both organisations’ codes of ethics. So I expect that if they have made a submission it may be along similar lines to the NZMA’s submission.

If anyone knows of any more information that I’ve missed in this article, please leave a comment below.

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 6: An Opportunity for Change

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 6: An Opportunity for Change

I’ve written a lot about ethical pharmacy practice in New Zealand, advocating for New Zealand pharmacists to choose not to promote or sell healthcare products that aren’t supported by credible evidence of efficacy. I’ve also complained in the past about misleading advertising of ineffective healthcare products in pharmacies. I strongly believe that we should be able to feel confident going into a pharmacy that we will get evidence-based advice on purchasing effective healthcare products, and not be misled.

The Pharmacy Council is responsible under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act for setting standards of ethical conduct for pharmacists in New Zealand. Section 6.9 of their current Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011 states that pharmacists must:

6.9
Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.

The Pharmacy Council is currently proposing to change this section of their code of ethics to the following wording, prior to the entire code being reviewed in 2016:

6.9a
Only supply or promote any medicine or herbal remedy where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9b
Only supply any complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when sufficient information about the product can be provided in order for the purchaser to make an informed choice with regard to the risks and benefits of all the available treatment options.

I have referred to section 6.9 of that code of ethics many times, as I feel it is a great standard which should offer a significant degree of consumer protection. However, despite there being ample evidence that homeopathic products are ineffective, most New Zealand pharmacies continue to sell them. I have heard many stories of people encountering misinformation about homeopathy in New Zealand pharmacies that sell it. The section of the code of ethics that is meant to protect consumers against this simply has not been enforced.

Even when the Society for Science Based Healthcare lodged a formal complaint directly to the Pharmacy Council about an instance where someone was recommended and sold a homeopathic product in a pharmacy (but didn’t realise it was homeopathic until they got home), both the Pharmacy Council and the Health and Disability Commissioner (who had the complaint forwarded to them from the Pharmacy Council) refused to enforce it. Neither of them were willing to tell pharmacies that they could not sell any specific product.

So although I really do like the old wording, I think this change could be an opportunity to turn the code of ethics into something that really can help consumers. As part of the proposed change, the Pharmacy Council is calling for submissions on it, so I see this as an opportunity to make things better.

At the Society for Science Based Healthcare, we have prepared a proposal to submit before the deadline of 5pm on the 1st of October 2015. I’ve included this proposal below for you to read, and you can also find it on our site: Pharmacy Council Code of Ethics Proposal

If you agree with our submission and would like to support it, please leave a comment below or get in touch. You can contact the Society for Science Based Healthcare via email at sbh@sbh.nz. We will be sending this submission to the Pharmacy Council on Wednesday the 30th of September Thursday the 8th of October (the Pharmacy Council extended their deadline).

Of course, you can also send in your own submission on this proposal. Details on how to do this can be found in the Pharmacy Council’s proposal document.


Last year the Society for Science Based Healthcare submitted a formal complaint to the Pharmacy Council regarding an Auckland pharmacy that had misled a consumer by promoting a homeopathic product as effective, then selling it to them. Although the council did write to the pharmacy, to our knowledge it did not consider whether or not the Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011 section 6.9 had been breached as alleged in the complaint. The council forwarded the complaint to the office of the Health and Disability Commissioner, but both organisations were unwilling or unable to enforce it as this would involve telling a pharmacy which products they can or cannot sell. Neither the Pharmacy Council nor the Health and Disability Commissioner seems willing to enforce a code of ethics when this would involve telling pharmacists which products they can or can’t stock.

The Pharmacy Council’s proposal document notes that the Council “has a duty to protect the public”. A code of ethics which is not enforced may as well not exist. We feel the addition of a new section requiring that sufficient information can be provided to consumers in order for them to make an informed choice regarding whether or not to purchase a complementary therapy is in line with what consumers could reasonably expect. We hope that complaints about potential breaches of this standard would be considered by the Pharmacy Council or another body, so that it can offer some measure of consumer protection.

However, we think the wording could be improved by changing “when sufficient information about the product can be provided” to “when sufficient information about the product is provided”.

It is currently widespread practice for New Zealand pharmacies to supply and promote healthcare products which are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy, such as homeopathic products. This is despite several prominent healthcare organisations, including the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) and the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA), speaking out against these products being prescribed or promoted by healthcare practitioners. Most recently, the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) published a statement on the 10th of September that:

PSA does not support the sale of homeopathy products in pharmacy.

When it comes to pharmacies stocking healthcare products that are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy, or for which there is credible evidence that they are not effective such as in the case of homeopathic products, it is important to weigh up the potential risks and benefits.

On the one hand, if these products are available in a pharmacy consumers will be more likely to visit a pharmacy to purchase them.. This can put them in a position where a pharmacist is able to provide them with evidence-based advice, so they can make an informed decision on purchasing the best product for whatever problem they are experiencing. If the product were not available in a pharmacy, they may instead seek it from a source which would not provide them with this information, or which may misinform them.

However, there are certain circumstances in which any potential for this benefit can be lost completely:

  1. If consumers are sent away from pharmacies when they ask about these products. We are aware, for example, of numerous instances of people being recommended by pharmacy employees that they should instead go to a dedicated natural health product store for information on homeopathic products.
  2. If pharmacists create an environment in which consumers are likely to be misled, for example by employing a homeopath to give non evidence-based advice to their customers.
  3. If a pharmacy sells these products online, in which case they can be purchased without any opportunity for a pharmacist to provide enough information for consumers to make an informed decision.

On the other hand, when a product is available in pharmacies it is likely to lead consumers to believe that it is an effective, evidence-based product. This is often used as a selling point by products which are not supported by evidence. For example, the homeopathic product No-Jet-Lag advertises itself as being available at “Most chemists nationwide“. In this way, pharmacists stocking products without credible evidence of efficacy can also contribute to an increase in consumer demand for them. Supplying a product in a pharmacy is effectively also a form of promotion.

Although some benefit can be gained from pharmacists stocking products that are not backed by credible evidence of efficacy, in order for consumers to make an informed choice about purchasing these products it is important that they be made aware of this lack of evidence. It should be an ethical requirement that pharmacists will not promote any healthcare product where there is not credible evidence of efficacy.

The Pharmacy Council’s consultation document for this proposed change says that:

In instances where there is credible evidence to suggest a specific complementary and/or alternative medicine/product lacks efficacy, pharmacists should not promote or recommend its use

We agree with this, but feel it has not been clearly conveyed in the proposed new wording for section 6.9. We feel it would be useful for this to be included more clearly.

We also feel that the important distinction between healthcare products is not whether they are considered a complementary therapy, herbal remedy, or medicine, but whether or not they are supported by credible evidence of efficacy. However, we recognise that medicines and herbal remedies typically have greater risk than other healthcare products, so it may be more suitable to have more stringent requirements for when pharmacists may supply them.

With this in mind, we propose the following wording:

6.9a
Only supply any medicine or herbal remedy where there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9b
Only promote any complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is credible evidence of efficacy.
6.9c
Only supply or promote any medicine, herbal remedy, complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is not credible evidence to suggest that the product lacks efficacy.
6.9d
Provide sufficient information about any medicine, herbal remedy, complementary therapy or other healthcare product product in order for the purchaser to make an informed choice with regard to the risks and benefits of all the available treatment options.

Finally, we feel that certain words could benefit from guidance on their definitions. In our 2014 complaint we raised with the Pharmacy Council that the meaning of “credible evidence” was not clear but were informed it was not their role to clarify this. However we feel it would be useful for an organisation such as the Pharmaceutical Society to publish guidance notes on this after the code has been updated.

We also feel that the meaning of “promote” should be clarified in the same way so it is clear where exactly the line is drawn. For example, we feel it is currently unclear which of the following activities might be considered promotion for the purpose of this code:

  • Advertising the availability of a healthcare product at a pharmacy
  • Featuring a product on a pharmacy’s website
  • Including an advertisement for the product on a pharmacy’s website on a page from which it can be purchased

If you agree with our submission and would like to support it, please leave a comment below or get in touch. You can contact the Society for Science Based Healthcare via email at sbh@sbh.nz. We will be sending this submission to the Pharmacy Council on Wednesday the 30th of September Thursday the 8th of October (the Pharmacy Council extended their deadline).

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 5: Looking for Leadership

Pharmacy
Pharmacy by russellstreet on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

In New Zealand, the Pharmacy Council is legally responsible under section 118(i) of the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 for setting standards of ethical conduct for New Zealand pharmacists. As part of this, they’ve written a Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics, which requires that:

YOU MUST:

Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.

Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics Section 6.9

Last November, a case was brought to our attention at the Society for Science Based Healthcare of a salesperson in an Auckland pharmacy recommending and selling a homeopathic product to someone who didn’t realise until they’d bought the product and taken it home that it was homeopathic and that there is no credible evidence of its efficacy. The society wrote a formal letter of complaint to the Pharmacy Council about this, alleging that it was a clear violation of this section of their code of ethics.

As part of this complaint, we made a series of recommendations:

As a result of this complaint, we want pharmacists to have the opportunity to do the right thing and fulfill their ethical obligations. In order to achieve this, we suggest that the Pharmacy Council consider the following courses of action:

  1. Advise [the pharmacy] of their ethical obligation not to purchase, supply, or promote any healthcare product where there is not credible evidence of efficacy.
  2. Recommend that [the pharmacy] review their stock, starting with [the homeopathic products we found in their store], to ensure that they meet this ethical obligation. If they are not currently aware of credible evidence of efficacy for these products, they should request it from the manufacturer and, if they are not supplied with credible evidence of efficacy within a certain specified timeframe (we recommend 10 working days) to remove the products from sale.
  3. Recommend that [the pharmacy] undertake training of their staff to ensure that no one is giving unfounded healthcare advice to customers.
  4. Relay these recommendations to other New Zealand pharmacies so that they are also given the chance to ensure that they meet this ethical obligation.
  5. To assist pharmacies in evaluating whether or not a healthcare product is supported by credible evidence of efficacy, the Pharmacy Council should develop and publish guidelines regarding what constitutes credible evidence of efficacy. This need not be a strict requirement so much as a useful guide that pharmacists can use to establish a consistent minimum standard of evidence.

The Society for Science Based Healthcare

The Pharmacy Council said that creating a guideline for standards of evidence was not their role, although they suggested that it may be appropriate for the Pharmacy Guild or the Pharmaceutical Society to create such a guideline and forwarded the letter of complaint on to these organisations. To my knowledge, neither of them has created any such guideline.

The Pharmacy Council also wrote to the pharmacy in question. When I visited it some months later I found the same homeopathic products were still for sale, although they had at least been moved behind the counter.

I don’t know if that particular pharmacy still actively promotes and tries to sell these products, but on Twitter the other night I was told of another case where a sales assistant at a New Zealand pharmacy tried to sell a homeopathic product while clearly lacking any useful knowledge about homeopathy:

In response to the Society for Science Based Healthcare’s complaint, the Pharmacy Council also offered to remind pharmacists of their obligations with respect to selling any alternative medicines in their next newsletter. Last week, 9 months after having received our complaint, they finally published this newsletter. Here’s what they said:

Complementary and Alternative Medicines — Best Practice Guidance for Pharmacists

As medicines experts, pharmacists have built their reputation on providing accurate, unbiased information on the use, safety and effectiveness of all medicines, including complementary and alternative medicines. Pharmacists must be familiar with the latest information on the medications they supply to their patients, and seek independent information to maintain an objective viewpoint so they can help individuals make informed choices (Competence Standard O1.2.4).

Homeopathy in particular has had much attention over recent times, specifically regarding its plausibility and efficacy. Nonetheless, many people, including some healthcare professionals, continue to use or practise homeopathic medicine and advocate its safety and efficacy.

It is not Council’s purpose to endorse any particular complementary or alternative medicine or practice; however, Council believes it is necessary for pharmacists to have a basic knowledge of complementary and alternative medicines to engage with and advise patients appropriately.

This approach also ensures pharmacists can meet their duty of care to patients and the profession. Pharmacists should be able to counsel patients about complementary and alternative medicines’ general use, the current evidence and any safety issues, including their use with other medications.

Pharmacy Council July 2015 Newsletter

Although I’m glad to finally see a statement from the Pharmacy Council about homeopathy, I am disappointed at the weakness of this statement. Especially in contrast with their clear and strong code of ethics that requires pharmacists only sell healthcare products with credible evidence of efficacy – something that is clearly not the case for homeopathy.

However, I’m aware that the Pharmacy Council’s role is restricted to the responsibilities set out in the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act. So perhaps it would be better to expect professional organisations representing pharmacists to speak out against this. We have recently seen this to be the case with organisations of other healthcare professionals, such as the New Zealand Medical Association whose chair recently agreed on national radio that homeopathy is “just rubbish”.

In New Zealand there are two professional organisations (that I’m aware of) that represent pharmacists: the Pharmacy Guild and the Pharmaceutical Society. They are not so limited in position by the law as the Pharmacy Council, so I would hope to see stronger positions supporting science based healthcare from them.

Over the weekend, the annual Pharmacy Awards were held, hosted by both the trade magazine Pharmacy Today and by the Pharmacy Guild. Surely, at an event like this we should expect to see a celebration of outstanding examples of pharmacies providing quality healthcare services, right? For the most part, I hope, that may have been the case, but I was rather disheartened to see one award that flies in the face of this goal.

The official description for the Best Complementary Healthcare Campaign award is (with my emphasis added):

To win this award you need to have come up with a complementary health promotion or ongoing programme that has contributed to improved retail result, in areas such as, vitamins, supplements, sports nutrition or homeopathy.

Pharmacy Awards | Best Complementary Healthcare Campaign

I was shocked and dismayed to see this. Pharmacists should win awards for providing an excellent healthcare service. Not for selling more fake medicine.

Of the previous winners listed, one is Auckland pharmacist Martin Harris. I’ve written about him briefly before in another article about homeopathy being sold in New Zealand pharmacies, quoting him from a Pharmacy Today article in which he defended the practice:

Auckland pharmacist Martin Harris says there is good evidence for homeopathy in the field of quantum physics.

“There’s no placebo-controlled, double-blind randomised controlled trials using one remedy and one result because homeopathy doesn’t work that way, it works on energy,” Mr Harris says.

Conventional medicines have been proven to have side effects and contraindications, but pharmacies still sell them, he says.

Mr Harris, who specialises in nutrition medicine, admits he is no expert when it comes to homeopathy, and his Massey pharmacy sells only a few homoepathy products.

But he would be very disappointed if he was not allowed to sell the products as an option, he says.

Pharmacists support patient choice with homeopathy – Pharmacy Today

Mr Harris last won the “Best Complementary Healthcare Campaign” award in 2012, but perhaps you could hope the pharmacist community has since stopped celebrating such massively misguided interpretations of the evidence (and ethics) surrounding homeopathy. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case, as Mr Harris took home the Supreme Award at this year’s Pharmacy Awards despite selling homeopathic products in his pharmacy and appearing to be proud of it.


The pharmacist community makes no secret of the fact that it wants to play a larger role in New Zealand’s healthcare system, calling for changes such as allowing pharmacists to dispense contraceptive pills without a prescription and and provide a substitute for a GP’s services in some circumstances. From my position as an external onlooker, it does seem like there is a certain degree of pharmacists wanting to extend their practice and doctors trying to defend their turf, although I also think both sides have good arguments to make. So long as any changes primarily act to serve the healthcare needs of the public, I’m happy.

However, running a successful pharmacy is a balancing act between running a profitable retail store and providing a reliable healthcare service. Pharmacies can do a great job at improving access to essential healthcare services such as vaccinations and smoking cessation, but on the other hand many of them also boost their profits by selling healthcare products that do nothing aside from emptying your wallet. A recent opinion piece in Pharmacy Today that acknowledged this balance recommended upselling Vitamin C when customers asked about cold/flu products. While this would surely increase the pharmacy’s profits, the best available evidence doesn’t show that Vitamin C supplementation can help with the common cold or influenza.

There is a clear need for leadership within the pharmacist community regarding putting customers’ healthcare needs before profits. We trust pharmacies to provide us with reliable healthcare products and advice, but so long as they keep fake medicine on their shelves I’m not convinced they deserve this trust. To quote the hover text of this relevant xkcd strip:

I just noticed CVS has started stocking homeopathic pills on the same shelves with–and labeled similarly to–their actual medicine. Telling someone who trusts you that you’re giving them medicine, when you know you’re not, because you want their money, isn’t just lying–it’s like an example you’d make up if you had to illustrate for a child why lying is wrong.

Randall Munroe – xkcd: Alternative Literature

I believe pharmacists generally do care about providing the best health outcomes for their customers. What I want to see is more pharmacists putting patients before profits, following in the footsteps of Australian pharmacist Grant McGill by choosing to remove homeopathic products from their shelves.

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 4: Paving the Way

This year has not been a good year for homeopathy. There have been many blows to the industry in the form of more research finding it ineffective, position statements from organisations of health practitioners discouraging its use, and successful complaints to regulatory authorities. And this trend shows no signs of abating.

In March, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published their Statement on Homeopathy, following a rigorous review of the evidence encompassing over 50 systematic reviews. The conclusion was clear:

there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.

Statement on HomeopathyNational Health and Medical Research Council (Australia)

Most organisations of medical professionals have codes of ethics that make it clear prescribing or selling treatments which are not supported by evidence is unethical. Putting two and two together, these ethical standards and the clear findings of the NHMRC have prompted the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) to publish a position statement on homeopathy:

The RACGP supports the use of evidence-based medicine, in which current research information is used as the basis for clinical decision-making.

In light of strong evidence to confirm that homeopathy has no effect beyond that of placebo as a treatment for various clinical conditions, the position of the RACGP is:

  1. Medical practitioners should not practice homeopathy, refer patients to homeopathic practitioners, or recommend homeopathic products to their patients.
  2. Pharmacists should not sell, recommend, or support the use of homeopathic products.
  3. Homeopathic alternatives should not be used in place of conventional immunisation.
  4. Private health insurers should not supply rebates for or otherwise support homeopathic services or products

Position statement: homeopathyRoyal Australian College of General Practitioners

Following this, in an interview with Radio New Zealand the chair of the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA), Dr Stephen Child, made the NZMA’s position clear:

Susie Ferguson: So Australian doctors being told not to be prescribing this, and they should come off the shelves as well so people couldn’t even buy them over the counter. Would you support that happening here?

Dr Stephen Child: Well yes, it’s an ineffective treatment. It’s basically giving a glass of water or a sugar pill to patients, and I think you would consider that unethical if I gave you a sugar pill and charged you eighty dollars for that.

Doctors Told to Stop Prescribing Homeopathic ProductsRadio NZ

Homeopathy has never been supported by evidence, but the recent findings from the NHMRC have strengthened the scientific consensus and allowed many organisations to take a stronger stance against it.

When there is also a clear ethical mandate not to promote or provide healthcare that is not supported by evidence, all it takes to put two and two together is a little courage.

Now, Kingsley Village Pharmacy in Australia is paving the way, stating that their “Homeopathic products [are] going in the bin”:

The owner of Kingsley Village Pharmacy, pharmacist Grant McGill, has explained why he made this decision:

I’ve never promoted or recommended these products but I’ve accepted them passively and I felt a bit hypocritical having them on the shelves.

I operate a bit differently to corporate chains and believe a pharmacy should be professional rather than a place selling a lot of cosmetics.

If someone comes in with sleep problems, I will look at what is known to help and address things like sleep hygiene issues, rather than recommending flower essences.

Pharmacist bins ‘crap’ homeopathic productsThe West Australian

When the Twitter account for the pharmacy was asked if they thought their customers would notice or care about the change, they said:

A tweet from Grant McGill echoed the same sentiment as the reason for this change:

Through the Society for Science Based Healthcare, I have called previously for New Zealand pharmacists to stop selling homeopathic products.

When I had an complaint upheld against an Auckland Pharmacy for a misleading display stand for the homeopathic product No-Jet-Lag, that pharmacy promised to remove the product from sale and I hoped that New Zealand pharmacists would follow their example.

But it isn’t feasible for me to complain about each and every homeopathic product sold in a New Zealand pharmacy (although that hasn’t stopped me complaining about some). New Zealand pharmacists need to follow Kingsley Village Pharmacy’s example and remove the products not because complaints have been upheld, but because there’s no evidence they work so it’s clearly the ethical thing to do.


The Pharmacy Council of New Zealand is the body legally responsible under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act for setting standards of ethical conduct to be observed by pharmacists on this side of the Tasman. To this end, they have published a Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics. Section 6.9 of this code is very clear when it comes to pharmacists’ ethical responsibilities surrounding evidence-based healthcare:

YOU MUST:… Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy

Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of EthicsPharmacy Council of New Zealand

Despite this, as mentioned in the Radio New Zealand interview with Dr Stephen Child from the NZMA, “In New Zealand, many pharmacies stock a range of homeopathic treatments”. When New Zealand pharmacists have been challenged on this point, their defences have ranged from bizarre misunderstandings of the evidence (e.g. “Auckland pharmacist Martin Harris says there is good evidence for homeopathy in the field of quantum physics”) to arguments that patient choice overrides their ethical responsibility:

But homeopathy is part of a holistic approach to healthcare, according to Auckland pharmacist Caleb Townsend, whose Lincoln Mall Pharmacy has qualified homeopaths onsite.

There is not one system that suits all people, Mr Townsend says in an email.

“Homeopathy is seen at this pharmacy as complementary to conventional medicine, in much the same way as acupuncture, vitamins and herbs are.”

Many patients believe homeopathy has been of benefit and they should be given the freedom to choose it if they want, he says.

“We have not yet become a society where cultural beliefs are legislated out of existence.”

Pharmacists Support Patient Choice with HomeopathyPharmacy Today

Dr Child provided a response to this line of argument in his interview:

Well, again as I say they argue that it’s mainly free trade basically, or a free market, so if people are willing to pay the money, and they think it works, then what are they doing that’s wrong?

And my problem with that argument though is to say that if they are telling the patient that it works then they are misleading in their advertising and even the Consumer Guarantee Act that it’s not allowed to mislead the consumer.

Second of all there’s an imbalance of a relationship when you come in to see a health practitioner and you’re the patient.

And thirdly when you’re suffering and you’re unwell you’re possibly not in a position to make an informed, balanced decision as a consumer. So I’m not even sure the free market argument would suggest that it would be legitimate practice.

Dr Stephen Child, Doctors Told to Stop Prescribing Homeopathic ProductsRadio NZ

The Society for Science Based Healthcare has also been in touch with Green Cross Health, an umbrella organisation that owns brands such as Unichem and Life Pharmacy and represents over 300 New Zealand pharmacies, to ask if they have a commitment to uphold section 6.9 of the Pharmacy Council’s code of ethics. Despite following up multiple times, the closest thing to a direct answer Green Cross Health has given to this question is:

While we support best practice we are also supportive of consumer choice.

Green Cross Health

The remaining defence of this practice is that pharmacists do more than provide healthcare, they also have to run a business. Following his Radio NZ interview, Dr Child alluded to this in an article from Pharmacy Today following his Radio NZ interview:

“Medically, it’s unethical to provide a treatment that’s not proven,” Dr Child says.

However, he has stopped short of telling pharmacies not to sell homeopathic products.

“It’s not really appropriate, I believe, for the medical profession to tell pharmacies how to run their business and how to act.”

Pharmacies have a difficult balance between providing healthcare and running a business, Dr Child says.

“It must be very difficult because they are a business as well.”

Homeopathy discredited again on both sides of the TasmanPharmacy Today

There is a range of behaviours among New Zealand pharmacies when it comes to promotion of homeopathy. Some few pharmacists refuse to sell the products at all, whereas many stock them but might not actively promote or recommend them. On the extreme end of this ethical scale, there are pharmacies like Lincoln Mall Pharmacy in Auckland, which promotes “homeopathic consultations” from homeopaths within the pharmacy, and Simillimum Pharmacy in Wellington, which describes itself as a “homeopathic pharmacy”.

The fact that there are some pharmacists who operate without relying on profits from selling homeopathic products indicates that it is entirely possible. Those pharmacists who passively sell them likely don’t rely on the profits made from those products as the difference between financial success and failure, so I’d hope they wouldn’t use higher profits as a justification for breaching their ethical obligations.

If any pharmacy has got to the level where their business would fail financially were it not for homeopathic products and services that they sell, then their business practices would blatantly violate their ethical responsibilities. I should think the risk of financial failure in a case like this should certainly not be an acceptable excuse for such unethical conduct.

Kingsley Village Pharmacy in Australia has set a great example for all pharmacists, having the courage to take a stand on ethics and stop selling homeopathic products. New Zealand pharmacists who currently have them on their shelves should follow in these footsteps.

To borrow Grant McGill’s words, pharmacists need to stand up for patient outcomes.

Press Council Complaint: Homeopathy in the Wairarapa Times-Age

In February this year, an article was published in the Wairarapa Times-Age (both in print and online) headlined Use of natural remedies is on the rise. The article discussed some specific cases of so-called “natural remedies” being used to treat serious diseases, such as intravenous vitamin C for leukaemia and homeopathy to treat various forms of cancer.

Except for a brief mention at the bottom of the article encouraging people with cancer to talk to their doctor before using any “alternative therapies”, there was no mention of the fact that none of the treatments discussed are supported by any reliable evidence. Instead, the article uncritically included various quotes such as this, from homeopath Claire Bleakley:

Featherston-based homeopath Claire Bleakley said she has treated cancer patients using similar natural remedies [to intravenous vitamin C] – significantly extending life expectancy.

She mentioned two of her patients in particular: A man with tumours who lived for seven years after being given two to live, and a woman with ovarian cancer who lived 15 years past her initial prognosis.

“There have been some exceptional results,” Mrs Bleakley said.

“We are indoctrinated to think chemotherapy is the only cure for cancer, but alternative [remedies] have been proven to be more life giving.”

Medical anecdotes such as these unfortunately tend to be very convincing despite the fact that they can also be completely misleading. The reasons why people might get better are varied and complex. Without running a controlled test, there’s no way to know whether or not a particular treatment contributed to an improvement in health. That’s exactly why we need to undertake rigorous clinical trials before we can say with confidence what the effects of any particular treatment are. It’s also why the Medicines Act prohibits the use of health testimonials like this in advertisements, although that restriction of course doesn’t extend to news articles in publications like the Times-Age.

I thought, and still do think, that the lack of balance in this article has the capacity to do serious harm. I wrote to the editor of the Wairarapa Times-Age to make my case, and to give some suggestions for how they might attempt to mitigate the damage this article could do, in a formal complaint:

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to you to make a formal complaint regarding the article “Use of natural remedies is on the rise” published in the Wairarapa Times-Age this morning:
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/wairarapa-times-age/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503414&objectid=11399310

This article uncritically promotes the use of so-called “natural remedies” such as vitamin C or homeopathy for the treatment of cancer. They are promoted by the inclusion of quotes such as “There have been some exceptional results”, regarding the treatment of cancer with homeopathic products.

None of the relevant controversy regarding these treatments is discussed in the article. Although there is a brief note at the end that “those living with cancer [are encouraged] to consult their doctor or specialist before embarking on any alternative therapies”, this does not sufficiently address the important and relevant fact that these treatments are entirely unsupported by scientific evidence, as well as the utter implausibility of treatments like homeopathy.

The failure to discuss the lack of scientific evidence supporting these treatments, as well as the complete lack of plausibility underlying homeopathy, violates the Press Council’s principle of “Fairness, Accuracy and Balance”. The description of this principle on the Press Council’s website states that:

“Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.

Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.”

This is not a long-running issue in which readers can readily be expected to be familiar with the lack of evidence supporting the treatments discussed in the article, so the exception should not apply. There is significant controversy surrounding the issues discussed in this article, but a fair voice has not been given to the opposition view.

Particularly as this article could lead to people living with serious diseases such as cancer to rely on ineffective treatments such as homeopathy, its lack of balance has the potential to cause real and serious harm. Therefore it is important that the Wairarapa Times-Age take appropriate action to prevent this harm by amending the article, publishing a prominent correction, or publishing a followup article linked to from today’s article, that discusses the lack of evidence and plausibility underlying the treatments discussed in today’s article.

If the Wairarapa Times-Age has trouble finding any experts to talk to about this topic, either the Society for Science Based Healthcare (http://sbh.org.nz/contact) or the Science Media Centre (http://www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz/contact-us/) will be able to help.

Sincerely,

Mark Hanna
Society for Science Based Healthcare

Despite sending a follow-up email a few days later, I still hadn’t heard back from the editor over the next 10 working days, which is the deadline set in the Press Council’s complaints process as the time to wait before escalating a complaint to them if you don’t hear back from the editor. After I forwarded my complaint to the Press Council, the editor contacted me to apologise that he’d overlooked my complaint messages, which was apparently due to his having to deal with another complaint about the same article from Peter Griffin, manager of the Science Media Centre (Peter is also the editor and manager of Sciblogs, where my blog is syndicated, and we’d discussed our complaints via email prior to submitting them).

When I forwarded my complaint to the Press Council, I fleshed it out a bit more. I won’t quote the whole thing here as a lot of it would just be repeating myself, although I’d be happy to share my full complaint if anyone would like to see it, but here is one part I added that I think is important and worth sharing:

As far as I’ve been able to tell, the Wairarapa Times-Age has not published a large number of articles regarding this, so it cannot be argued that the counterpoints have already been published in earlier articles.

When it comes to whether or not readers can be expected to be familiar with the important facts not mentioned in this article, I would like to bring the Press Council’s attention to a 2009 study (I am not aware of any more recent data collected on this) published in the New Zealand Medical Journal entitled “Beliefs about homeopathy among patients presenting at GP surgeries”. This study can be accessed for free on Page 94 of this PDF:
http://www.nzma.org.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/17794/Vol-122-No-1295-22-May-2009.pdf

This study found that only 8 out of 124 respondents disagreed to some extent that “There is good scientific evidence that homeopathy works”, and only 24 respondents reported that they believed homeopathic products were either “very dilute” or that there was “nothing there”. In contrast, 82 respondents agreed to some extent that “There is good scientific evidence that homeopathy works”, and 80 believed that homeopathic products are either “Very concentrated”, “Moderately concentrated”, or “Moderately dilute”.

Contrary to these common beliefs, most homeopathic products are diluted to the point that it is astronomically unlikely that there is even a single molecule of the original ingredient present in the product, and there effectiveness is thoroughly unsupported by scientific evidence. For example, a rigorous review undertaken by the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in 2013 investigated the evidence regarding homeopathy for 68 clinical conditions and concluded that “The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans”
(https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/your_health/complementary_medicines/nhmrc_homeopathy_overview_report_october_2013_140407.pdf)

For this reason, and especially because the article discussed the use of ineffective therapies in the treatment of terminal illness, it is very important that stories such as this be balanced. As I stated in my original complaint to the editor, I believe the article in its current form has the capacity to do serious harm and that the Wairarapa Times-Age has a responsibility to mitigate this harm. An appropriate response would be amending the article, publishing a prominent correction, or publishing a followup article linked to from the article from the 10th of February that discusses the lack of evidence and plausibility underlying the treatments discussed in today’s article.

(The NHMRC link I provide there is from their 2013 conclusion. Within 2 weeks of submitting this complaint, however, they released their final statement on homeopathy, which states “there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective”. This statement was not reported in the Wairarapa Times-Age)

Once the complaint was escalated to the Press Council, the editor of the Times-Age was given an opportunity to respond, then I had a final opportunity to write a short response to that. His primary argument was that the topic of “alternative medicine” was a long-running issue in a wider context, and that the exemption to the principle of balance should apply because other media have reported on the opposing side of the issue.

I strongly disagree with this argument. Although it’s true that media like the Wairarapa Times-Age do not exist in a vacuum, I don’t think this should mean that they don’t have a responsibility to provide balanced articles for their readers. The way I interpret the Press Council code, the exception can be useful when an article is part of a series of articles on the same issue, and when taken in the context of other articles in the series the overall view still maintains an appropriate balance. In the interest of balanced reporting, I believe exceptions to the principle of balance should be applied very sparingly.

Unfortunately, the Press Council disagreed with me. They have ruled not to uphold the complaint, and you can view their entire decision on their website here:
Case Number: 2426 MARK HANNA AGAINST WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

Here’s a link to their similar ruling regarding the complaint from the Science Media Centre:
Case Number: 2425 SCIENCE MEDIA CENTRE AGAINST WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

Here is a summary of their decision:

The Press Council agrees with the editor that the debate over alternative remedies is sufficiently well known not to require balancing comment in every story about them. The subject falls within the exception to the principle of balance for issues of enduring public discussion.

The complainant in this case raised the important question of whether the exception can be invoked for an article in a newspaper that may not itself have covered both sides of the debate. The Council considered this point closely and came to the view that the exception has not been applied as narowly as the complainant contends and should not be. A newspaper, even if it is the sole newspaper of its locality, does not exist in a vacuum. Its readers, meeting an uncritical story on the supposed popularity of homeopathy and natural remedies, are likely to be aware the efficacy of these treatments is strongly contested by medical science.

I think this is a very worrying precedent to set. Newspapers such as the Wairarapa Times-Age can now feel justified in publishing unbalanced articles on topics such as homeopathy without feeling bound to uphold the Press Council’s principle of balance. The public have a reasonable expectation, given that the Press Council exists to uphold standards in reporting and its first principle is that articles should be accurate, fair, and balanced. While it’s a good idea to take everything you read with a grain of salt, you should be able to feel justified in expecting media reports on controversial topics to provide a balanced view. I worry that people might read articles such as this with that assumption in mind, and falsely conclude that the views omitted from the article are not merited.

I’m also rather frustrated that the Press Council concluded that anyone reading articles such as this is “likely to be aware the efficacy of these treatments is strongly contested by medical science” even though I provided data from a survey that found only 6% of respondents disagreed that “there is good scientific evidence that homeopathy works”. I understand that the survey I cited was conducted 6 years ago, but as I said in my complaint I’m unaware of anything more recent.

Although I don’t think it is, I really hope that the Press Council’s conclusion that most people are aware that homeopathy is not supported by evidence is correct. Following last year’s story about Green MP Steffan Browning backing homeopathy for ebola and March’s story about the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council concluding that homeopathy does not improve people’s health, I think there is some basis to believe that more people are familiar with the lack of evidence surrounding homeopathy than 6 years ago, but I don’t expect there would be that large a difference.

One positive thing to take away from this, at least, is that the journalist who wrote the article said in a Facebook comment that she understood the article was unbalanced and that she should have done better. I hope she’ll take this as a learning experience and, when she or other Wairarapa Times-Age reporters write on matters of “natural health” in the future, that they get in touch with the Science Media Centre to provide that much-needed balance. If we can’t rely on the Press Council to hold journalists to a high standard of balanced reporting, then we’ll have to rely on journalists’ and editors’ own standards.

EDIT 2015/04/14 10:05 am: Peter Griffin, who also complained to the Press Council about this article, has published his thoughts on the ruling as well: When balance goes out the window

EDIT 2015/04/04 1:13 pm: The Wairarapa Times-Age has published a short article on this ruling: Times-Age supported by Press Council

EDIT 2015/04/14 2:21 pm: Grant Jacobs has also published a post with his thoughts on this ruling: Press Council rules on knowing readers minds?

EDIT 2015/04/15 2:51 pm: Andrew Bonallack, the editor of the Wairarapa Times-Age, has published his thoughts on the Press Council decision in an opinion piece for the Times-Age: Your right to choose sacrosanct

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 3: Running Out of Excuses

Ethical pharmacy practice is something I have written about before. If you’ve read those posts, please bear with me as I cover some familiar background.

In New Zealand, we are lucky enough to have an industry code of ethics for pharmacists, published by the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand, which holds pharmacists to high ethical standards. This code of ethics is the Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics. One of the most important parts of this code of ethics is section 6.9, which states:

[PHARMACISTS] MUST:… Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.

Pharmacy Council’s Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics Section 6.9

The Pharmacy Council of New Zealand isn’t a voluntary member organisation like the Pharmacy Guild or the Pharmaceutical Society. Instead the council is established as part of the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003. Their roles are set out in this act and include:

  • Registering pharmacists
  • Reviewing and maintaining the competence of pharmacists
  • Setting standards of clinical competence, cultural competence, and ethical conduct for pharmacists

Which means that the Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics is not a voluntary code of ethics. It is published by the body whose legal duty it is to set the standards of ethical conduct for pharmacists. Yet all over New Zealand, many pharmacists ignore it.

Walk into any New Zealand pharmacy. Chances are that you will find a section where they advertise and sell a range of homeopathic products. To anyone familiar with the evidence for homeopathy, it will come as no surprise when I tell you that there is no credible evidence of efficacy for any homeopathic product. Therefore, it seems to me, New Zealand pharmacists have an ethical obligation not to promote or sell them.

Yesterday, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) issued their final statement on homeopathy, following an incredibly extensive and rigorous review of the literature. They looked at over 1,800 scientific papers, and found that 225 met their criteria for methodological rigour, sample size, and placebo control. Their main finding was:

there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.

NHMRC Statement: Statement on Homeopathy

As I said, this conclusion does not come as a surprise. This research is the latest in a long line of reviews of the evidence for homeopathy that drew essentially the same finding:

  • A 2002 systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology concluded that:

    the hypothesis that any given homeopathic remedy leads to clinical effects that are relevantly different from placebo or superior to other control interventions for any medical condition, is not supported by evidence from systematic reviews. Until more compelling results are available, homeopathy cannot be viewed as an evidence-based form of therapy.

    A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy

  • A 2010 systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy published in the Medical Journal of Australia concluded:

    The findings of currently available Cochrane reviews of studies of homeopathy do not show that homeopathic medicines have effects beyond placebo.

    Homeopathy: what does the “best” evidence tell us?

  • A 2010 report from the UK House of Commons concluded:

    homeopathy is a placebo treatment.

    Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy

  • In 2013, the NHMRC published a report based on their research that found:

    There is a paucity of good-quality studies of sufficient size that examine the effectiveness of homeopathy as a treatment for any clinical condition in humans. The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans.

    Effectiveness of Homeopathy for Clinical Conditions: Evaluation of the Evidence

I could go on, but I hope by now you get the idea.


New Zealand pharmacists need to respond to the NHMRC’s research. And if they mean to practice responsibly and ethically, that response should be to immediately stop all promotion and sale of homeopathic products. The ethical standard to which they should be held is clear, and it is not consistent with promoting or supplying homeopathic products.

Last year, I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority under the auspices of the Society for Science Based Healthcare about a homeopathic product for preventing jet lag (No-Jet-Lag) that was advertised in Parnell Pharmacy. The pharmacy responded by removing the advertisement, and agreeing to stop selling the product if it was found that the claims were not supported by credible evidence, and my complaint was upheld. Unsurprisingly, my complaint was upheld when the ASA decided claims such as “it really works” were not supported by credible evidence. However, despite Parnell Pharmacy’s example, many New Zealand pharmacies still sell this exact product.

The NHMRC’s report represents the same finding, but on a larger scale. New Zealand pharmacists who promote and sell homeopathic products should follow the responsible example of Parnell Pharmacy, and remove homeopathic products from their shelves.

When Marketing Trumps Science

Recently I’ve run across a couple of New Zealand companies that sell therapeutic products – one a weight loss pill, the other a jet lag drink – that seem to put marketing first and let science take the back seat. This is by no means new behaviour, but I want to use them as examples to illustrate this widespread problem and suggest what can be done to combat it.

Before promoting a therapeutic product, you should first have good reason to believe that it works. This, I hope, is common sense, but it’s also enshrined in the Fair Trading Act and the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code as they prohibit unsubstantiated claims. This means you have to test the product, and do so rigorously. Rigorous clinical trials are expensive to undertake though, so they’re quite a prohibitive first step.

Instead of jumping straight into the deep end, a useful first step can be to undertake a smaller and less rigorous (and therefore less expensive) experiment. In order to answer the question of whether or not a product actually works you need to conduct a more rigorous trial. There’s a great cost involved in doing this, but if the results of a preliminary trial are optimistic then you have reason to expect a more rigorous trial might give similar results, so the expense might be worth it. You may even be able to get some funding to help with a more rigorous trial on the basis that the preliminary results were positive.


This is what Tuatara Natural Products has been doing with their weight loss pill “Satisfax”. They have completed a low quality preliminary trial on their product, which has been colloquially dubbed the “Fat Mates” trial. Although I don’t believe it has yet been published in a journal at the time I’m writing this article, it was registered retrospectively in the Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry: Effect of the dietary supplement Satisfax (Registered Trademark) on weight loss in overweight volunteers. Some information on the data in the trial can be found on their website as part of an analysis by Dr Chris Frampton: Analysis of Satisfax® Clinical trial

As you can see on the trial registration page, this was an uncontrolled trial on overweight adults. The original plan was to recruit 100 volunteers with the hope that at least 60 will complete the trial. I have to say I’m a bit confused about how many people were in the trial, as apparently the recruitment was increased to 200 applicants after applications opened (a change that has not been reflected in the trial’s registration) yet apparently about 400 people applied. One article claims there were 200 participants, a later media release from Tuatara Natural Products seems to imply 100 were recruited, and the analysis of the trial says there were only 81 participants. Either way, 81 participants completed the full 8 weeks, and 52 of them took the recommended dose for the whole duration of the trial.

If there were 19 or 119 participants who didn’t complete the trial, the statistical analysis seems to ignore them with no justification given. This is unusual – a 19% drop out rate is significant and shouldn’t be swept under the rug. A lot of the time Tuatara also seems to ignore the 29 participants who didn’t drop out but also didn’t take the full dose for the whole duration.

The Science Media Centre posted the responses of 2 experts, Associate Professor Andrew Jull and Professor Thomas Lumley, to a press release from Tuatara Natural Products in February. It’s a good analysis of some of the weaknesses with the study, and I recommend you read it: Kiwi diet pill claims – experts respond

This trial was uncontrolled, and therefore also unblinded and unrandomised. As Professor Lumley explains, this is a problem if you want to draw strong conclusions from its results. It is of low methodological quality, but that’s okay. There is no problem with doing less rigorous trials first if they’re done in order to determine if more rigorous trials are necessary. Dr Glenn Vile, Chief Technical Officer of Tuatara Natural Products and the principal investigator for this study, wrote the following in a comment on a post on the “Fat Mates” trial by Dr John Pickering:

The Fat Mates trial was designed by clinical trial specialists to generate information about the Satisfax® capsules that would help Tuatara Natural Products plan a larger and longer double blind, cross over, placebo controlled trial.

We will use this information to proceed with the next clinical trial, but in the meantime we were so excited the weight loss achieved by most of our Fat Mates was much greater than the placebo effect seen in other weight loss clinical trials that we decided to launch the product so that anybody who is overweight can try Satisfax® for themselves.

Dr Glenn Vile

I think the first part of what I’ve quoted above describes exactly what Tuatara Natural Products should be doing. They’ve conducted their low quality trial, and intend to use its results to proceed with a larger, longer, and more rigorous clinical trial. This is the right way to proceed – they now have an indication that their product might be effective, so they should do the research to find out.

The problem is that that’s not all they’re doing. After performing only a small low-quality trial, they’ve released their product for sale online and have been making a lot of noise about it. In my opinion, they’ve been significantly overstepping the results of their clinical trial. For example, in his comment Dr Vile also said:

our initial trial has shown [Satisfax] to be extremely effective in some overweight people.

Dr Glenn Vile

In their media release on the 20th of February, they reported the average weight lost only by the 52 participants who took the full dose to completion (rounded up from 2.9 kg to “close to 3kg”) but not the average weight lost by all participants. They then reported in bold that the top 26 participants lost more weight, and the top two participants lost even more weight than that!

This cherry picking of the best results appears to have been part of Tuatara Natural Products’ marketing strategy for at least a few months now. In January, Stuff published an article on the trial highlighting the single person who lost the most while participating in it: Blenheim ‘fat mate’ loses 13.5kg in 8 weeks.

That article particularly highlights the person who lost the most weight out of all those in the trial, at 13.5 kg (confusingly, the maximum weight loss reported in the analysis of the trial’s results is 13.3 kg). However, she was one of only 2 participants who lost over 10 kg, and on average the 52 participants who took the recommended dose for the full eight weeks lost 2.9 kg. Losing 13.5 kg is very far from a representative example. I’m not surprised that they didn’t choose instead to focus on the participant who gained 1.2 kg despite taking the recommended dose for the whole duration, but that is actually much closer to the mean change in weight.

The article is, for all intents and purposes, one big testimonial in favour of Satisfax. It was an article, not an advertisement, which is important because in New Zealand it’s illegal to publish any medical advertisement that:

directly or by implication claims, indicates, or suggests that a medicine of the description, or a medical device of the kind, or the method of treatment, advertised… has beneficially affected the health of a particular person or class of persons, whether named or unnamed, and whether real or fictitious, referred to in the advertisement

Medicines Act 1981 Section 58(1)(c)(iii)

This effectively bans all health testimonials from advertisements. I think this is a good part of the law, as testimonials can be both very convincing and completely misleading; a quack’s dream. Banning them should force businesses to instead focus on the results of research on their products, but this hasn’t stopped Tuatara Natural Products from getting stories written about the most extreme testimonials they could find from people who have lost weight at the same time as they were taking Satisfax.

More recently, Tuatara Natural Products has put out a press release multiple times (at least on the 20th of February and again on the 4th of March) that I think rather oversteps the results of their small preliminary trial:

A NEW ZEALAND SOLUTION TO A GLOBAL PROBLEM A little pill is providing an exciting answer to one of the worlds greatest and fastest growing problems: Obesity.A NEW ZEALAND SOLUTION TO A GLOBAL PROBLEM

A little pill is providing an exciting answer to one of the world’s greatest and fastest growing problems: Obesity.

Press Release – Tuatara Natural Products

I simply don’t think they are at all justified in saying that their new product is “providing an exciting answer to… Obesity”. They are putting marketing ahead of science, and that’s not okay.


Another company that seems to put marketing before research is 1Above. They make a drink which they claim can help you recover faster from jet lag, and have recently been in the news for signing a sponsorship deal with the fantastically successful golfer Lydia Ko.

At the end of that article about their sponsorship deal the reporter, Richard Meadows, made some comments regarding the science behind jet lag relief products and asked some good questions of 1Above’s CEO, Stephen Smith (emphasis mine):

[1Above’s] product contains a mixture of vitamins B and C, electrolytes, and Pycnogenol, a pine bark extract.

The efficacy of flight drinks to combat the effects of jetlag is unproven.

Late last year pharmacists were warned after the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against an ad saying a homeopathic anti-jet lag pill really worked.

[1Above CEO Stephen] Smith said 1Above would not be doing clinical trials, which were highly expensive and not necessary.

“What we tend to use is testimonials from people who have used the product and swear by it.”

Smith said the key ingredient, Pycnogenol, had itself had been tested in dozens of trials, including its effects on reducing jetlag.

Kiwi startup 1Above signs golf No 1 Lydia Ko

Yes, you read that correctly. The CEO of 1Above literally said that they won’t be doing clinical trials because they are “not necessary” and that they use testimonials instead.

As I said before, using testimonials to promote a therapeutic product, like a drink to help you recover faster from jet lag, can be both very convincing and completely misleading. There’s a reason why testimonials implying health benefits are illegal in New Zealand, and I hope that 1Above’s marketing will not violate this regulation.

Not all testimonials are prohibited, of course. It’s entirely acceptably to provide a testimonial from someone who thinks their drink tastes great, or that they provide great service. Basically anything for which a single person’s experience can provide a useful insight. Therapeutic effects, almost without exception, do not fall into this category, which is a big part of why we need to do clinical trials in the first place. If they quote someone in saying that their product helped them recover faster from jet lag, they may be in danger of breaching the Medicines Act.

For example, I’d expect they probably shouldn’t use a testimonial that says this:

Testimonial on the 1Above website, collected 2015/03/05
Testimonial on the 1Above website, collected 2015/03/05

On their website, 1Above currently does refer to research on one of the ingredients in their product, “pycnogenol”. Professor Lumley recently wrote a post about this on his other blog, Biased and Inefficient, regarding these studies and how they are used by 1Above: Clinically Proven Ingredients

I recently contacted 1Above to ask about some discrepancies I found between the abstract of the study they cited for showing pycnogenol reduced the duration of jet lag and their description of it on their website:

I was interested to see the claim your company made that Pycnogenol® has been shown to support circulation and reduce the length and severity of jet lag.

I have found the study “Jet-lag: prevention with Pycnogenol. Preliminary report: evaluation in healthy individuals and in hypertensive patients” that is mentioned on your website as the source for this claim, but I am only able to access the abstract of this preliminary report. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the study protocol didn’t involve blinding of participants or researchers.

The participants in the study took 50 mg Pycnogenol 3 times per day, but I haven’t been able to find out how much is contained in your products. Is this information available anywhere on your website? I notice the study also says the participants took this regimen for 7 days, starting 2 days prior to departure. Is this comparable with how your product is intended to be used?

I also noticed some differences between the description of the study and its results between the abstract and your website, I would be grateful if you could explain to me the source of these differences.

The abstract states the control group took, on average, 39.3 hours to recover and the experimental group took, on average, 18.2 hours to recover. However your website reports these as 40 and 17 hours respectively.

Also, your website states that the study involved 133 passengers (it’s not clear from the description on your website if they all took Pycnogenol or if some of them were in the control group) who reported the time it took them to recover from jetlag. However, the study’s abstract states that in the first experiment, which is the only one that involved the reporting of the time taken to recover from jetlag, only involved 68 participants – 30 in the control group and 38 in the experimental group.

I would be grateful if you could explain these differences to me, and if you could send me any other relevant scientific information that supports this claim.

To their credit, since receiving my message they did update their website to fix the discrepancies in the reported number of participants and times taken to recover from jet lag, and their CEO replied to thank me for pointing these discrepancies out.

However, they didn’t respond to my other questions about the amount of pycnogenol in their products or the study involving the participants taking pycnogenol for 7 consecutive days, starting 2 days before their flight, which is inconsistent with how 1Above recommends their products be used.

This is just one more company basing their marketing on preliminary trials instead of using them as the basis for research that could actually answer the question of whether or not a product is useful. Worse than Tuatara Natural Products, they even go so far as to consider clinical trials “not necessary” and apparently intend to rely on testimonials instead. It would be much more appropriate for them to spend some of their $2.4 million annualised income on researching their product rather than paying for a sporting celebrity to endorse them.


I try to make my rants constructive, so I want to end this article with the question “What can we do about this?”. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them in the comments section.

I think the most important thing that anyone can do to address this problem is to ask for evidence. If you see a claim made about a product that you think you might buy, then get in touch with the company selling it to let them know you’re considering buying it and to ask for evidence. If they don’t have a good enough answer, then let them know that’s why you won’t be buying their product. If they give you evidence to back up their claim, then great!

The UK organisation Sense about Science has created a website for just this purpose: www.askforevidence.org

Asking for evidence doesn’t have to be a big deal, involving a formal letter or anything like that. When you see a weight loss product advertised on a one day deal site, a copper bracelet that apparently offers pain relief advertised on a store counter, or a jet lag cure promoted on Twitter, make your first response be to politely ask for evidence.

This isn’t a problem that’s going away any time soon. As consumers, we deserve to be able to make informed decisions about the products we buy, and when companies put marketing before research it becomes harder to make these informed choices. But if we work together then we can encourage companies like Tuatara Natural Products and 1Above to improve their behaviour and attitudes toward marketing and research.

Let’s turn “what’s the evidence?” into a frequently asked question for all companies that sell therapeutic products.

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 2: Time for a Spring Clean

In July, I wrote an article on Ethical Pharmacy Practice and Homeopathic No-Jet-Lag. In it, I described the importance of the role pharmacies play in the healthcare system, and their ethical obligation not to mislead consumers or promote ineffective healthcare products. In particular, I described an advertisement I saw in an Auckland pharmacy for a homeopathic product called “No-Jet-Lag”, and the complaint I submitted to the Advertising Standards Authority about it via the Society for Science Based Healthcare. There’s also a write up of this decision and the 2 others released at the same time on the Society’s website: Pharmacy to Remove Homeopathic Product Following Complaint

On the 9th of October, the ASA released their decision to the public. They ruled to uphold my complaint, which means the advertisement has to be removed. More importantly, in response to my complaint the pharmacy made a promise to remove the product from sale if the complaint was upheld. Here’s what they said:

We believe that the manufacturer, Miers Laboratories ought to respond to the substantive complaint that it’s [sic] representations fail to comply with the Therapeutic Products Advertsing [sic] Code.

We believe that the product is sold in many pharmacies in New Zealand and it is somewhat arbitrary that our pharmacy is the subject of the complaint.

We are interested in the outcome of the complaint and can indicate that if the Authority upholds the complaint we will remove the product from sale. In the meantime, the product has been removed from the counter and placed on a less prominent position.

I agree with their first two points. While I think pharmacies shouldn’t promote or sell healthcare products without a sound understanding of the evidence behind them and the claims made about them, I also think it’s reasonable to expect the manufacturer (who also produced the advertising in this case) to substantiate the claims. Moving the display to a less prominent position in the meantime seems like a reasonable compromise as well, although of course I’d prefer it if the product were never stocked in the first place.

I also agree with them that their inclusion in this complaint is somewhat arbitrary. For that reason I am not going to specify in this article which pharmacy it was. If you really must know then you can read the full decision on the ASA’s website. As they said, many New Zealand pharmacies sell this product and I think this complaint applies to all of them.

I also think this pharmacy’s promise to remove the product from sale in the event that this complaint is upheld, as it now has been, is the appropriate response. I think that every single New Zealand pharmacy that stocks No-Jet-Lag should follow suit. There are a lot of them. The website for this product even claims on its New Zealand Retail Outlets page that “Most chemists nationwide” stock it.

As I mentioned in my original post on this topic, and in my complaint, New Zealand pharmacists are bound by the Pharmacy Council’s Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011. Perhaps the most important part of this industry code of ethics, at least in my mind, is section 6.9:

YOU MUST:

Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.

This is a very fine standard to adhere to, and I would hope that all businesses to which it could possibly apply would adhere to it as well, although realistically I know that’s not the case.


In response to the complaint, Miers Laboratories submitted a few studies to the ASA. They were pretty laughable though when you look at the sample size:

In all our research we base our work on previous studies, the first study for jet lag used 5 people, then it was 10 and at the time the accepted worldwide minimum was 12 for clinical trialOur [sic] bigger study used 19 people.

So basically “most of our studies didn’t even meet the very low minimum accepted size, and even the largest one was tiny”. Very impressive, Miers Laboratories.

The 19 person study they mention is also promoted on their website, and I pre-emptively discussed it in my complaint. It seems the Advertising Standards Complaints Board essentially agreed with my criticisms:

The majority of the Complaints Board said the statement “It really works” was an absolute therapeutic claim and, as such, required a high level of support. However, it noted the trial population in the pilot study was small, the methodology was not robust and the results had not been published or peer reviewed. The Complaints Board also noted the study was an in-house trial conducted by the Advertiser rather than independent research.

Given the weaknesses in the study, the majority of the Complaints Board said the Advertiser had not satisfactorily substantiated the claim the product “really works” and, as such, the Complaints Board said the advertisement had the potential to mislead consumers. Consequently, the Complaints Board said the advertisement did not observe a high standard of social responsibility required of advertisements of this type. Therefore, the majority of the Complaints Board ruled the advertisement was in breach of Principles 2 and 3 of the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code.

For context, Principle 2 of the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code states that:

Advertisements must be truthful, balanced and not misleading. Claims must be valid and have been substantiated.

And Principle 3 states that:

Advertisements must observe a high standard of social responsibility.

This is basically exactly the result I was hoping for, which is great. However, I was a little concerned by one part of the decision:

A minority of the Complaints Board disagreed [that the advertisement was in breach of Principles 2 and 3 of the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code]. It acknowledged the study sent by the Advertiser to support its claims. While it noted the issues with the study, the minority of the Complaints Board was of the view the product was not harmful and said the consequences of the product not working were not significant or serious for the consumer.

I’d expect anyone who has ever paid money for a pill to prevent jet lag would disagree with this, although it is obviously a lot more serious than something like a cancer treatment that doesn’t work. More importantly, although I do agree that it’s important to consider the severity of what happens if the product doesn’t work, I hope that the ASA will not give a free pass to misleading therapeutic advertising simply because it’s for a condition that they deem insignificant.


Now that this complaint has been upheld, the pharmacy in question has promised to remove No-Jet-Lag from sale. I hope this is the start of a spring clean for all New Zealand pharmacies that stock this product. They should follow this responsible example and take the opportunity to examine other products they have for sale – especially homeopathic products – to ensure that they are abiding by their ethical duty not to promote or supply healthcare products for which there is no credible evidence of efficacy.

You can help. Next time you see a homeopathic product in a pharmacy, ask them what the evidence for it is. If you see this particular product, ask them if they’re aware that the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against it on the basis that the evidence for it just isn’t good enough.


EDIT 2014/10/12

It’s great to see that several media outlets have picked up this story:

Green Party Health Policy

There was a thread recently in one of the Facebook groups I’m a member of in which, among other election-related things, the Green Party’s Health Policy was being discussed. It was mentioned that the Green Party had been essentially pro-CAM, at least in the past. As I’d been considering voting for the Greens, this was something I thought I should look into further.

Here’s a link to their Health Policy. My first impressions of this document were quite positive, especially seeing that one of their “Key Principles” seems to echo the mission statement of the Society for Science Based Healthcare where it states that:

Decisions about health services should be based on the strongest possible evidence.

However, I found myself worried that this might just be paying lip service to evidence-based policy. Particularly considering the comments I’d seen regarding past policy, and some other sections of the current Health Policy such as:

The Green Party will… Find ways to integrate complementary therapies that have a sound evidence base into health services.

The Green Party will … Increase resources for physical and mental rehabilitation in… complementary practices.

Of course, complementary therapies that have a sound evidence base should be “integrated” into real medicine. That’s exactly what medicine should be – therapies with a sound evidence base. However, as I said before, I felt worried this mention of evidence may just be lip service, or perhaps that the standard of evidence required might be low (as I’ve typically seen when it comes to the promotion of complementary therapies).

As you’ll have seen if you’ve clicked on the Health Policy link, Kevin Hague is listed as the spokesperson for this policy, as well as the person to contact. So that’s what I did. Below is the email I sent him, and the response I received (much faster than anticipated – within 2 hours):

Hello Mr Hague,

My name is Mark Hanna. I don’t think we’ve met, although we were both at the New Zealand Skeptics conference in Wellington last year. I’m currently considering giving my party vote to the Greens this election but I wanted to email you first to clarify something about one of the policy statements.

I spend a lot of my spare time working with regulatory systems to combat misinformation about health and healthcare in the public sphere. The vast majority of this misinformation comes from sources that promote “complementary therapies”.

To this end, I’ve made dozens of successful complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority and Medsafe, and have recently co-founded the Society for Science Based Healthcare as part of this continued effort. I’ve also written on some aspects of publicly funded healthcare in New Zealand that I find troubling and would very much like to see change, such as ACC’s stance on acupuncture (http://sciblogs.co.nz/honestuniverse/?p=41).

I’ve read the Green Party’s Health Policy (https://home.greens.org.nz/policy/health-policy); I’m glad to see an emphasis on evidence and I strongly support with [sic] party’s focus on equality in healthcare and making it as accessible as possible. However, I’m also wary that I don’t want my party vote to inadvertently support the kind of thing I spend so much of my time fighting against. Most particularly, I am worried about point 7 under the “Whole-of-System Healthcare” section:

“Find ways to integrate complementary therapies that have a sound evidence base into health services.”

As you may be aware, the majority of complementary therapies have a very poor evidence base. Even in cases where there is a large amount of research, in general it is of poor quality, and in very many cases the use of complementary therapies is simply not supported by sound evidence.

Other sections of the Health Policy add to my concern here, such as the 1st point under “9. Post-Acute Care” which says “The Green Party will… Increase resources for physical and mental rehabilitation in… complementary practices”. Before I commit my party vote, I’d appreciate it if you could assuage my fear that the reference to sound evidence may be no more than lip service.

In general terms, what would the Green Party consider the minimum standard of a sound evidence base in this context? Could you describe what the evidence for a treatment that does not meet this standard might look like?

As part of their commitment, will the Green Party also make an effort to prevent the integration of therapies (whether “complementary” or otherwise) into health services where there is not a sound evidence base?

I also note the party has pledged to:

“Support rongoa Māori (traditional Māori healing) practitioners and practices, and develop better linkages with other health services.”

I’m wary that when dealing traditional healing practices such as rongoa Māori and Traditional Chinese Medicine, the complex issues of science- and evidence-based healthcare and cultural sensitivity and inclusiveness can become entangled. Will the Green Party maintain their commitment to basing decisions about health services being based on the strongest possible evidence even when dealing with complex and often difficult issues such as these?

I’m under the impression that other people I know who are also considering giving their party vote to the Greens could also be swayed one way or the other depending on your response. I’d appreciate it if I could have your permission to publicly share any response you send me regarding this.

Sincerely
Mark Hanna

This is the response I received from Kevin Hague:

hi Mark,
I’m an admirer of your work. Thank you for it!

As you probably know, Green Party policy is developed by members, rather than MPs, and the Policy Committee strives for consensus if possible.

if you have compared the current Health policy with its predecessor (and my statements with those of my predecessor in the role) you will have noted substantial change that I think you would be pleased with.

The statement in the principles concerning complementary therapies, is a neat compromise I think (nobody can really argue for the use of public money on something that doesn’t work, but if it does work then it should be integrated), but does give rise to your question of what kind of evidence would be sufficient. In practice it would be me as spokesperson who would interpret the meaning of the policy (this is established practice in the Green Party). My first port of call would be Cochrane. If there is no guidance there, then it’s probably a no, but as someone who used to teach at postgrad level in research methods I would also be in a position to look at any papers that are proposed as providing evidence and make an assessment.

The obverse of this commitment does also apply ie if the state is currently funding therapies with poor or no evidence of effectiveness then it should stop doing so. This applies both to ‘complementary therapies, but also to mainstream treatments (my favourite instructive example being mammary arterial ligation as a treatment for coronary heart disease – it’s worse than ineffective).

In the case of rongoa I think matters actually are more complex. In addition to the cultural sensitivity matters to which you refer there are also Article II Treaty rights, so it’s not simply a matter of evidence. And when it comes to the evidence, far fewer studies have been undertaken. You probably know that there is significant evidence internationally that such indigenous treatment systems may be effective, even though their intervention logic and mechanism are quite different from traditional western approaches (eg Kleinmann in relation to mental illness in Taiwan). It could be that strongly held cultural beliefs may create a substantial placebo effect. Sometimes, even if we know the effect is just placebo, it could be worth having. So on this point I would interpret our policy as supporting the availability of rongoa, even though the evidence base for effectiveness may not be strong. I would also support further research to create a sound evidence base, where this doesn’t currently exist.

Hope that’s useful. Please feel free to share this if you want.

Best,

Kevin

Honestly, I’m quite happy to hear this answer. It sounds to me like the mentions of evidence are more than lip service, and hopefully indicative of a change in direction for the Greens in this area. The fact that Kevin Hague is their spokesperson on Health and ACC gives me hope as well. Especially comparing him to their past Health spokesperson Sue Kedgley, who has some ideas about healthcare that are rather wacky.

I would like to make one more comment regarding the issue of traditional medicine such as rongoa. First off, rongoa is not something I’ve looked into in much depth, I don’t know much about the state of the evidence and don’t mean to discuss it here. I would like to say though, that when I referred to issues like it being “complex and often difficult”, I meant to imply that it is not as simple as it may be in some other cases, where the only important question may be “what does the evidence say?”.

These traditions are often more than just for healing, they’re part of a wider culture and the people that use them are often already part of a disadvantaged group. If we care about what’s best for people, then we also need to care about the repercussions of discouraging or somehow diminishing such a part of their culture. As Kevin mentioned in his response, this is where things like the Treaty of Waitangi become important. There’s also an important distinction to be drawn between treatments for which there is negative evidence and those for which there is no evidence one way or the other.

I certainly wouldn’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to issues like this, and I think it’s a matter on which I would do better to listen than to speak. I do agree with Kevin that it’s not simply a matter of evidence, though, and I’d welcome a discussion on this particular issue if anyone else has anything to add.

The Price of Painkillers Part 2: Only Misleading in Australia

Yesterday, I wrote about how various painkillers with the same active ingredients often cost different amounts. In particular I talked about Reckitt Benckiser’s “Nurofen” ibuprofen products, some of which are advertised as targeting specific types of pain even though it doesn’t seem plausible, given that they are essentially exactly the same, that they could target different types or sources of pain.

There are a few aspects of their advertising that I think gives this impression. For one, they have products that seem intended for specific types of pain that have names like “Nurofen Migraine Pain” and “Nurofen Back Pain”. For another example, if you look on their website you’ll see that the claim “Targeted relief from pain” is pretty prominently displayed alongside their logo in the upper left hand corner:

Nurofen

The packaging of their products repeats this claim, also pretty prominently:

ibuprofen lysine 342 mg (equiv. ibuprofen 200 mg)

In 2011 Professor Paul Rolan*, head of the medical school at the University of Adelaide, laid a complaint with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regarding a TV advertisement for Nurofen as a treatment for headaches regarding this claim. The TGA is roughly Australia’s equivalent of New Zealand’s Medsafe, as they are responsible for the regulation of therapeutic goods.

For some reason (I’m assuming it’s a bug, and have emailed them about it), although the decision is still listed on the TGA’s Complaints Resolution Panel’s website, its full details aren’t currently available. However, they have been archived in full elsewhere. The thrust of the complaint was that:

The complainant accepted that the advertised product “is undoubtedly effective” as a treatment for headache, but argued that “it works by being absorbed in the blood stream and being distributed widely around the body, not only to where it is needed but to everywhere else as well”, and that “there is no ‘targeting’ to the head and hence the phrases ‘targeted pain relief’ on the packet and the claim made in the advertisement ‘goes straight to the source of the pain’ are factually incorrect and misleading”.

The relevant section of the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code was section 4(2)(c), which states that:

An advertisement for therapeutic goods must not… mislead, or be likely to mislead, directly or by implication or through emphasis, comparisons, contrasts or omissions

Reckitt Benckiser’s response was basically that they weren’t being misleading because anyone seeing their advertisements would realise that when they say Nurofen “goes straight to the source of pain”…

an ordinary and reasonable person viewing the advertisement would interpret it as conveying “that Nurofen goes to and acts at the source of the pain associated with a headache, namely where the headache is located in the head” and not “that Nurofen will only go to and act at the source of the pain.”

I don’t find myself convinced by this rebuttal. It seems analogous (if you’ll pardon the violent example) to saying a bomb targets a single person, but that’s not misleading just because it also happens to destroy everyone nearby as well.

You can read the full findings of the panel yourself at the link above, but for a synopsis they essentially agreed with Professor Rolan in that:

26. The Panel did not accept that, in being dispersed throughout the body, the advertised product could reasonably be said to “target” or “go straight to the source of” headache pain or the site of a headache.

They also found Reckitt Benckiser’s rebuttal unconvincing:

28. The Panel noted that the advertiser had argued that consumers were generally well aware that Nurofen was suitable for many types of pain. On this basis, the advertiser argued that consumers would not interpret the advertisement as conveying a “targeted” action in the sense alleged by the complainant.

29. The Panel did not accept this argument. While the Panel accepted that consumers might generally be aware that Nurofen is suitable for many types of pain, this does not mean that a reasonable consumer would be aware that Nurofen is normally distributed throughout the body when taken. The Panel was satisfied that a reasonable consumer, noting the references to “targeted relief of pain” and “going… to the source of pain”, would conclude that the active components of the product travelled specifically to areas of the body affected by pain – in this instance, the part of the head affected by a headache. The reasonable consumer would also conclude that the active components of the product would not travel elsewhere throughout the body to any significant degree. The Panel noted that although the advertisement did not state exactly how Nurofen might physically concentrate in areas of the body affected by pain and target them, it did convey that Nurofen would do so. That Nurofen might also be understood to be beneficial for other types of pain did not alter this, because in such cases Nurofen would again be understood to concentrate at the site of pain.

As a result, Reckitt Benckiser was told to stop that particular advertisement and to not make the same representations in other advertisements. Of course, this only applies in Australia; to my knowledge Reckitt Benckiser hasn’t changed their advertising strategy here in New Zealand. As far as I know, it also hasn’t been challenged here.

I’m reminded of another case of what I consider to be misleading advertising from a pharmaceutical company that I’ve written about previously. When GlaxoSmithKline has advertised their “Panadol Extra” product, they have claimed it is “37% more powerful than standard paracetamol tablets”. The catch is that, when they say “more powerful”, they’re referring to potency, not efficacy, so instead of meaning the pills give 37% more powerful pain relief it means you can take 37% less Panadol Extra to get the same amount of pain relief. This might be difficult, however, considering that a single Panadol Extra pill contains exactly the same amount of paracetamol as a standard paracetamol tablet – 500 mg.


* Professor Rolan is also a member of Friends of Science in Medicine, a great Australian organisation dedicated to promoting science and fighting pseudoscience in the medical field. They do some great work across the ditch; I’m a member and I think they deserve your support as well.