Dr Ken Harvey, academic, consumer advocate and a strong critic of complementary medicine, has resigned from his position as Adjunct Associate Professor at La Trobe University’s School of Public Health after the university struck a $15 million deal with multivitamin company Swisse to research its products.
The six-year funding arrangement will help establish a new ‘Complementary Medicines Evaluation Centre’ at the university to evaluate the “safety, efficacy and cost-effectiveness” of an industry worth more than $1.2 billion in Australia.
Swisse often uses phrases such as “clinically tested”, “clinically proven”, and “scientifically shown”, on its products, but has fallen foul of the Therapeutic Good Administration’s Complaints Resolution Panel in recent years over claims made about some of its products.
When the panel determined that the Company’s slogan “You’ll feel better on Swisse” was “unsubstantiated, misleading and likely to arouse unwarranted and unrealistic expectations of product effectiveness” the Company’s CEO Radek Sali called the decision “ridiculous” and questioned the panel’s expertise to rule on such matters.
Announcing the Swisse investment last month, the university’s deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Keith Nugent, said in a press release that “La Trobe is responding to consumers’ need to know more about the benefits of complementary medicines and to be empowered to make informed choices.”
The trials will be industry-funded. Prof Nugent said the Swisse products will “undergo rigorous and independent, scientific assessment”.
In a scathing letter of resignation to Vice-Chancellor Prof John Dewar, Dr Harvey wrote: “Swisse is well known for prioritizing the marketing of its products (especially by the use of celebrities) over their scientific assessment. Indeed, many of the claims Swisse have made about their products have been judged to have breached the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code by the independent Complaint Resolution Panel.”
Swisse has used endorsements by sports stars such as Ricky Ponting, Cadel Evans and Mark Webber, and celebrities including Nicole Kidman, in its advertising campaigns.
Dr Harvey’s letter said he supported more research into the efficacy of complementary medicines, “but, in my view, it is crucial that the design, assessment and funding of such research be at arm’s length from a particular company and overseen by an independent body.”
“I am concerned that the partnership of La Trobe University with Swisse Wellness Pty Ltd involves a fundamental conflict of interest,” Dr Harvey wrote.
Dr Harvey has previously been critical of Swisse on the academic website The Conversation.
Of an estimated 10,000 vitamin products on the market, only around two per cent, some 200, are registered with the TGA.
The ABC consumer show The Checkout is currently defending a defamation action from the father of Swisse CEO Radek Sali, after a segment aired last year, which singled out Dr Avni Sali as a co-author of a research paper, partly funded by Swisse, on the use of multivitamins.
Dr Sali founded the National Institute of Integrative Medicine, which researches complementary medicines and is partly funded by Swisse.
Swisse head of media Mitchell Catlin told The Herald Sun that the univsersity research centre was both what the industry needed and critics had asked for.
“The project is a fantastic positive and it’s a real shame it’s being used to try to damage the reputation and outstanding work of La Trobe University,” he said.
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