02.The ads plus government checks
The testimonials that shout at you in large print things like “Losing 14 kilos in 24 weeks while taking product X has made me more confident and energetic” were until recently simply qualified in the fine print: “Featured cases are exceptional. Results may vary.” In other words, don’t expect this to happen to you, chances are it won’t — not quite the impression the main part of the ad is hoping to make. Recent changes to laws mean typical cases must now be used — but they’re only typical if you follow the diet and exercise advice, not if you just swallow the pills.
Dramatic before and after shots
have also carried a disclaimer. One ad we saw had no less than 11 different before and after shots, the only headline being “Is it your turn this summer?” Maybe it is, but judging by the disclaimer — “Featured cases are exceptional, results may vary” — you’d have to be feeling lucky.
You have to diet and exercise
There's more in the fine print: “In conjunction with a calorie-controlled eating plan and exercise.” Wasn’t that what we were trying to avoid in the first place by going for a weight-loss pill? These products aren’t allowed to claim they work without a calorie-controlled diet and exercise. The most they can claim is that you may lose more if you take them than if you just did the hard yards. The fine print tells you there’s no dodging the diet or the activity.
Assists with weight loss
When it comes to actual weight loss (rather than more nebulous claims like reducing your appetite or ‘sugar cravings’), what you’ll see claimed is “May assist in weight loss”. Think carefully about what that means — it doesn’t mean just swallow this and you lose weight.
- These weight-loss pills are not necessarily individually tested and approved for efficacy and safety before they hit the market.
- The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is the government body that regulates complementary medicines like these. And it’s the one responsible for insisting on the fine print in ads.
- ‘Therapeutic goods’ like these weight-loss products can be registered (AUST-R products) or listed (AUST-L) by the TGA.
- Registered products are evaluated by the TGA before they’re allowed on the market, to ensure they’re both effective and safe — for example, prescription medicines.
- Listed products don’t get the same premarket grilling.
- Don’t assume the full TGA treatment has been given to weight-loss medicines.
All the complementary weight-loss products we looked at were listed (AUST-L), except for two ENERVITE products (Ezi Slim and Hunger Buster) that had been around for so long they were allowed to keep their AUST-R status when the regulations were changed in 1989.
After the Pan Pharmaceuticals recalls of 2003, the government asked an expert committee to look at how complementary medicines were regulated. Some of its members considered “that the current two-tiered system doesn’t allow consumers … to adequately distinguish those medicines that have been scientifically evaluated for efficacy by the TGA and those that have not”.
The companies are supposed to hold a file of evidence to support the claims for their product. But judging by the quality of what they sent us by way of this evidence, we suspect the TGA might not be overwhelmed by what they’d find if they decided to ask to look at it — CHOICE Online certainly wasn’t.
One of the concerns raised by the expert committee was that many companies selling complementary medicines (known as the products’ ‘sponsors’) aren’t equipped to critically assess the evidence, and that “when the TGA undertakes a review of the evidence held by these sponsors, the evidence will be found wanting”.
The manufacturers are audited to check they’re making them according to good manufacturing practice. But the TGA considers these products to be ‘low risk’ and says they’re only allowed to make claims for “non-serious, self-limiting conditions”. We’re surprised that something as serious as overweight can be considered non-serious. Maybe if you just want to get into last year’s swimsuit, but not if your health depends on it.
There's a TGA list of ‘low risk’ ingredients, and as long as your product only contains these, that’s all you need to put it on the market.
Increased random and targeted audits of the evidence held by companies was one recommendation of the committee, and the TGA has agreed to do this. It says the number of new listed medicines reviewed has increased over the past year from 15% to 18%, and that it’s working on increasing this further to 25%.
New advertising code
A new version of the advertising code came into effect towards the end of 2005. In theory it could clear up the problem CHOICE has had with testimonials(see above). Now cases have to be ‘typical’, not ‘exceptional’ – that means the story the pictures and words tell need to be results which are likely to be obtained by people using the product. However, we've already seen an example where the pictures still look very dramatic, and now there’s no disclaimer about results varying.
Testimonials and before and after shots are only typical if you follow a healthy energy-controlled diet and follow an exercise program.
This article last reviewed December 2005