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This site won an Encouragement Award in the 2003 Millenium Awards. The award citation read:
The CHCA pretends to be interested in ensuring that the public receives reliable information about alternative medicine. One of their stated aims says that "The CHC is committed to enhancing the public health and wellbeing of the Australian population through education and information on the use of complementary healthcare products". This might be more believable if the organisation was prepared to give some attention to failures and flaws in alternative medicine. It does nothing about useless devices like zappers or magnetic "healing" products, it opposes informative labelling of products and restrictions on the advertising of unproven cures, and it appears to be totally uninterested in the possible dangers of extreme quackery. Its job is to promote "alternative" medicine in a totally uncritical manner using whatever comes to hand.
The Complementary Healthcare Council of Australia also won the 2003 Bent Spoon award from Australian Skeptics. The deciding factor was when the CCHA asked the government for several million dollars to educate the public about alternative medicines. This request was in response to the discovery that Pan Pharmaceuticals, Australia's largest manufacturer of alternative medicines, had quality control procedures which were so lax that the only facts about a product which could be accepted without question were that the bottles were made of glass and the boxes were made of cardboard.
When the government announced that as a result of the Pan debacle some more stringent controls might be placed on alternative medicines, the response of the CCHA, and therefore the entire alternative medicine industry, was to claim that the industry would be bankrupted if it had to do what James Lind could do in 1747.
Some indication of the CHC's desire to clean up the Australian quackery industry can be gained from the following quotes from officials of the organisation.
The government suggested that it was deceptive to include the words “drug free” on the label of potions with pharmacological effects, and the reaction was:
Passage of TGR Amendment No.401 through the Senate would be a denial of our democratic right for responsible and commonsense information on complementary medicines.
When changes to advertising rules were suggested, this was going to cause much distress.
The advertising review has removed a lot of previously prohibited claims and introduced a system which allows a wider range of claims so long as they are balanced, truthful and not misleading. However, many claims that have been accepted for ten or more years are no longer acceptable and there is a real danger that many multi-component products will be lost as industry has 4 years to comply with the new requirements.
So here you see the industry admitting that for at least ten years its members have been making claims that are unbalanced, untruthful and misleading and instead of promising to clean up the act they want more than four more years to stop lying.
The main objective of the CHC position is to get out of the pharmaceutical paradigm that is crippling the industry and denying consumers' access to products that are freely available in other comparable countries.
There are two possible interpretations of the expression "pharmaceutical paradigm". One is that it is the paradigm which says that products should be thoroughly tested and be shown to work before they are sold to the public. The other is that science should be relevant to research and the pursuit of knowledge. It says much that following these principles might result in "crippling the industry".
What did they know and when did they know it? (3/9/2005)
I started my presentation at the Australian Skeptics 2005 National Convention by apologising on behalf of SkeptoBear, who couldn't be there because he was at Lady Cilento's health farm undergoing detoxification in an American Indian sweat lodge. When I got back home I did a search for Lady Cilento's address so that I could send a get well card to The Bear, and I serendipitously found something very interesting about the alternative medicine industry in Australia.
It seems that one of the major prizes in the Australian alternative business is the Lady Cilento Award, and it is so prestigious that it is not awarded every year. In September 2002, the Lady Cilento Award was given to Jim Selim, the boss and owner of Pan Pharmaceuticals, a company which was shut down by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in April 2003 because its standards of hygiene, manufacture and quality control were of a level which would not be acceptable in a primary school cooking class. (You can read some of my comments on Pan here.) At the time that the nominations were being discussed by the relevant committee of the Complementary Healthcare Council of Australia, representatives of the next three biggest manufacturers and packagers of alternative medicine products objected to Selim getting the award. These objections were not based on a competitor getting a prize, but because they were aware of what was going on in the Pan factory. (You can read a press report about the award and its aftermath here.)
So, what do we now know? We know that people at the top of the alternative industry were aware of the problems at Pan at least seven months before the TGA took action. We know that when Pan was shut down, the unanimous response of the industry was that there was a witch hunt going on and that the real problems were confined to a single packet of Travacalm tablets (and even then there might have been no real problem). We know that when a very serious problem arises it is not addressed but is instead covered up or dismissed as trivial. We know that we can trust them to weed out fraud and bad practices as much as we can trust the claims for the beneficial and healing properties of the snake oil that they sell. And vice versa.
(Disclaimer: For some time I was a member of the Complementary Healthcare Council of Australia. After all, CHCA's stated aims are the same as mine - to ensure that alternative medicines are safe and effective and that no unsubstantiated claims are made about their use.)