Few readers would have seen this story yesterday in the Fairfax media – vitamin company Swisse has evaded an attempt by TGA to ban its appetite suppressant product by registering a new product with the exact same ingredient, an extract of Indian cactus. Oh, and Nicole Kidman has been named as the company’s US ambassador. But the fact that the story was buried in the business pages is no measure of its health-related importance. It has made it out into the news section today.
The Checkout team on ABC TV has already highlighted the problem of supplement manufacturers gaming the legislation using the very example reported in the SMH. This Indian cactus extract has no scientific validity as an appetite suppressant. Swisse is taking advantage of the loophole in the legislation that permits pseudomedicines to be promoted for their “traditional uses”. Just think about the implications of this story for a minute.
A swag of dodgy products have their listings on the ARTG cancelled by TGA due to the fact they don’t work and are being promoted in a misleading way. This is potentially annoying for Swisse, which has already sunk elephant dollars into hiring celebrities to endorse one of the cancelled products (I assume the celebrities didn’t seek Swisse out and offer their services for free because they are so convinced about the benefits of their various concoctions). One doesn’t need to be a PR genius to work out it would be a bad look to have Our Nic and the crew promoting stuff overseas that is banned at home.
Straight away, with no change at all to the ingredients or the formulation (presumably because they have warehouses full of the stuff ready to go) Swisse changes the label and is allowed to re-register the product because the approval for such products is done by a piece of software. Presumably the computer program involved lacks an irony detector.
As if that’s not absurd enough, check out what the effect of this “ban” will be. I promise I’m not making this up, but here is some advice from Swisse to their retailers, quoted directly from the information circular sent out to stockists.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU, THE RETAILER?
The only impact brought about by this change is that from now, Swisse will sell you the product labelled and listed as “Hunger Control” rather than as “Appetite Suppressant”. This is not a new line of Swisse product, rather a new name for the same product.
You may continue to sell through existing stock of the Swisse Ultiboost Appetite Suppressant with its current name (and TGA listing) after the 4th April. The TGA has confirmed this.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOUR CUSTOMER?
Any customers that wish to purchase the Swisse Ultiboost Appetite Suppressant should be directed to purchase the Swisse Ultiboost Hunger Control instead. Customers can be told that Hunger Control contains the same formulation as the Appetite Suppressant, but has different labelling due to regulatory requirements.
So there you go. It stays on the shelves and can be legally sold until current stocks are exhausted while continuing to make the very claims that TGA has already decided are misleading for consumers. No ceasing, no desisting, just sales as usual.
As the business pages remark with approval, the expensive gamble of buying in celebrity clout has been costly but very effective for Swisse as a business. I strongly suspect the comparative pittance they pay their regulatory compliance department is worth much more to their operation. They have a superb working knowledge of how to operate within the clownish absurdities of our current regulations, and that gives the celebrities something to sell after all.