I recently saw an editorial in the online edition of the Australian newspaper The Brisbane Times which seemed to fit with the recent series of posts I did on the subject of regulation for complementary and alternative medicine, especially the one addressing regulation of supplements and homeopathy. The editorial, entitled The Bitter Pill of Non-Medicine, begins by succinctly stating the problem:
Australians spend $4 billion a year on so-called alternative medicines, hoping against the odds that a largely unregulated industry will deliver cures and health benefits denied them by medical professionals.
It then goes on to pose the question which I tried to answer in my series:
Surely authorities would prohibit the sale of pills, ointments, syrups and contraptions that had not withstood the rigours of medical testing?
Apparently, like the U.S. government, the Australian government has neither the resources nor the political will to require some independent evidence of safety and efficacy for CAM products. The assumption seems to be that while these products may be ineffective, they are generally harmless, so regulating them is not a priority. There is abundant evidence that this assumption is not always true, including the recent paper from Australia showing the very real harm children can experience when treated with these methods. However, even if it were generally true, the article asks whether unrestrained marketing of these products is still legitimate:
But does absence of harm justify government inertia on this front? How is the public to know the implied promises of proven capability are empty? Should not the elaborate claims of some promoters be met with more vigour, particularly given the willingness of pharmacists to add their good reputation to assurances of the medical worth of these products?
The author then points out the problem, also seen with CAM products in the U.S., that these products rarely comply with even the limited regulations that are applied to them:
In a recent test of 400 newly listed alternative medicines, it found 90 per cent of them did not comply with regulations, weak as they are. Most infringements were relatively minor but in 3 per cent of cases flaws were serious enough for the product to be removed from sale. But here is the sting. The tiger is so toothless that banned products can reappear on shelves – sometimes within 24 hours – after re-branding.
Since human psychology is pretty consistent across the world, it’s not entirely surprising that irrational attitudes towards CAM, and the consequent ineffectual public policy, are a worldwide phenomenon. But it does dampen one’s hopes for the eventual development of more appropriate policies.