Call for tougher regulation of complementary medicines

An urgent overhaul of the control and regulation of complementary medicines is needed in Australia, according to an article published today in the 'Medical Journal of Australia'.

La Trobe University Adjunct Senior Research Fellow of the School of Public Health, Dr Ken Harvey, and his co-authors say controls on the supply and promotion of complementary medicines in Australia are weak.

Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are classified by the Therapeutics Goods Administration (TGA) as 'listed goods' and are not evaluated for efficacy. In contrast, ‘registered medicines' are individually evaluated by the TGA for quality, safety and efficacy before market entry.

'Despite the widespread and increasing use of CAM, many consumers are unaware that listed medicines do not undergo the same stringent evaluation process as registered medicines,' Dr Harvey says.

Dr Harvey's team found that, from 1996 to 2006, more than 1000 CAM 'weight loss' products were listed by the TGA; most contained multiple unevaluated ingredients (herbs, vitamins, minerals) of dubious efficacy. Promotional claims made about these products were often not in accord with the scientific evidence available. Over the same period, only nine conventional 'weight loss' medicines were registered; each contained one evaluated ingredient of proven efficacy.

Dr Harvey says: 'Our investigation shows that failure to evaluate listed products for efficacy has created a commercial opportunity for the sponsors of CAM products at the expense of informed consumer choice and protection. Complaint procedures - now overloaded - are no substitute for adequate regulation at the time of market entry.'

The authors list a number of recommendations to improve the regulation of CAM, including:

  • public education campaigns to inform consumers of the current regulatory processes,
  • more stringent sanctions for companies that repeatedly breach marketing codes, and
  • assessment of the efficacy of CAM by the TGA.

The 'Medical Journal of Australia' is a publication of the Australian Medical Association.

The article can be viewed online.

The statements or opinions that are expressed in the MJA reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA unless that is so stated.


Dr Ken Harvey, 03 9029 0634 / 0419 181 910; John Flannery, AMA Public Affairs, 02 6270 5477 / 0419 494 761