02.A consumer's story: testing the claims
The purpose of advertising is to attract consumers’ attention. Where goods are concerned, the intention is that they be purchased. Claims make the product attractive, but in some fields, for example the complementary medicine area, there can be a lack of evidence to support product claims.
A consumer’s story about testing the claims made by a sponsor of a complementary medicine
I recently noticed a product called Immune Plus, claiming to help consumers fight flus and viruses advertised in a newspaper. Curious, I looked on their website for supporting evidence and considered the claims unjustified.
Who to write to with a complaint? This is what I discovered:
- There is a Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code 2005 which I found (eventually) and downloaded from the website of the Department of Health and Ageing, Therapeutic Goods Administration (www.tga.gov.au). It took time to read the 18 page document and seek sections relevant to my queries. Some were unclear.
- I learnt that advertisements for complementary healthcare products must be submitted to the Complementary Healthcare Council (CHC) or the Australian Self-Medication Industry (ASMI). I assume for approval. It was unclear which one I should complain to at first and I chose the wrong one, it ended up having to go to the CHC. All specified media advertisements must display the current approval number allocated to that advertisement. This product had such a number.
- My complaint citing possible infringements of the code was passed from the Complaints Resolution Committee to the Complaints Resolution Panel (how confusing is that!).
I was very happy with the process and outcome that followed:
- My complaint was forwarded to the marketing company by the Complaints Resolution Panel asking for a response.
- In reply the company justified their position. One comment I had made was that the ‘claims are not verified’. The company’s response was that this complaint ‘is not based on any fact and no supporting reasons are included in the complaint’.
- The Complaints Resolution Panel considered my complaint and the response of the marketing company. In a detailed, 4 page report they pointed out that I had misinterpreted the code in making my complaints, perhaps not surprising since I found it ambiguous at times. However, they identified matters not specified in my complaint which could contravene regulations, including the TGA Code and requested the company to respond. I considered these were related to the essence of my concerns. Perhaps had I spent more time matching code and advertisement I would have found more matters of complaint.
- The outcome is that the company was requested to withdraw the advertisements from further publication.
So I feel I won. Even if the process took some months to investigate and resolve.
However, I have major concerns:
- How did this product receive an approval number permitting it to be advertised?
- What safeguards are in place to ensure complementary medicine ads meet the TGAC criteria for approval?
- Does this process need tightening up?
We know that as many as half the adult population uses alternative therapies. Few realise they have little evidence to support claims and worse, that some may react adversely with prescribed medicines. Consumers need better protection.
This consumer has decided to remain anonymous.