A while back, having satisfied myself that popping vitamin pills and other supplements is mostly a waste of time unless medically indicated, I decided to look into the claims of Swisse, a company which advertises that stuff very heavily here. They use high profile sports people and other luminaries to sell their touchy-feely, aint-life-grand-when-you-feel-great message.
It seems that now the Therapeutic Goods Administration (on whom I have heaped so much scorn) have taken an interest, and ordered Swisse to pull advertising for 11 of their products. It also seems that the TGA has grown a pair, and as result my estimation of them has also grown. High five, TGA.
Apart from the usual multi-vitamin stuff, roundly taken to task in Ben Goldacre’s writings, Swisse push wild krill oil, liver detox, glucosamine, coenzymes, chlorophyll etc etc – you get the idea. Think of a supplement and they sell it. While some have reasonable evidence of efficacy for some conditions (for example, krill oil in easing PMS symptoms), others are questionable – for example, see my article on glucosamine.
So last year, I decided to check on the multi-vitamin claims, which also happen to be the hardest to pin down. You know, like those nebulous symptoms like ‘rundown’ and ‘listless’ – which it turns out respond remarkably well to the placebo effect. I resisted the urge to write to Ricky Ponting, and instead wrote to Swisse themselves. Their response was as follows:
We refer to the above and thank you for your enquiry. Swisse Vitamins have conducted two clinical double blind trials by independent research teams to date. These results can be found on the following link: http://www.swisse.com.au/?deeplink=/RESEARCH/Swisse_Ultivite_Clinical_Trials/#/RESEARCH/Swisse_Ultivite_Clinical_Trials/ .
At this stage we are conducting new clinical trials on both the Swisse Men’s and Women’s Ultivites Formula 1 in men and women aged 25-45.
In the initial clinical trials such great results became apparent to the researchers at Swinburn University that they wanted to do more in depth studies on the health benefits of the Swisse Men’s and Women’s Formula 1, especially in younger age groups. Some of the areas that will be looked at are stress, mood and cognitive function.
Furthermore Swisse Vitamins also have ongoing clinical trials, again conducted by independent researchers.
Once the results have been collated we will be making them readily available to be peer reviewed and will give our consumers detailed information via our website. If you have any further enquires, please do not hesitate to contact the Swisse team.
What makes Swisse products so different? It’s all about the Swisse team’s 4P’s approach to life – where People, Principles and Passion must come before profits. As you may know, the Swisse formulae are based on over 25 years of research and backed by clinical studies, scientific validation or other evidence based on traditional use. Swisse contains effective, clinical potencies and incorporates the highest-grade natural source, standardised extracts and water-soluble nutrients whenever available. Surveys show that when you compare and evaluate the ingredients, potency and research invested in Swisse with the pricing and benefits of other multivitamin brands, the Swisse Ultivite should be priced over 5 times the current recommended retail price. The Swisse team always aim to provide consumers with world leading products, at the most competitive prices.
We’re also obsessed with quality assurance, to ensure that from soil to shelf every product we develop meets world class standards and delivers the benefits you desire for health and happiness. For example, every batch of Swisse Women’s and Men’s Ultivite must pass over 300 quality assurance and scientific tests before they are approved for sale, to ensure the product’s safety and efficacy.
Swisse Ultivites have been independently tested for use by athletes because Swisse does not contain any prohibited substances. Swisse is one of the biggest investors in research and development, with independent clinical studies always being conducted at world leading universities including The University of Melbourne, Swinburne, Southern Cross and Queensland Universities and other medical establishments worldwide. It’s all about the Swisse team’s 4P’s commitment to putting People, Principles and Passion before profits and making more people healthier and happier.
CLED! (“Celebrate Life Every Day!” That’s the Swisse Team Spirit!)
Full marks to Swisse for actually responding, even though 2/3 of it was spin. And yes, they were able to point to a couple of clinical studies which had all the right words. If nothing else, they have a very effective and switched on marketing department. The little sign-off homily is indicative of their pitch – woo-hoo! it’s great to be alive. Oh, and by the way, their products are even ‘carbon balanced’, which they say means they have done a carbon audit, and will be reducing their emissions. They have all the feel-good stuff covered, right?
The two study outcomes presented on their website seemed persuasive enough, although I now know to take with a pinch of salt any study from the Southern Cross University department of Complementary Medicine, after this nonsense.
The above letter dates back to July 2011, and no further testing is indicated on their website, despite the promises in the email, and I’m betting there won’t be anytime soon.
And given the extensive range of products they sell, why only two studies? Surely they should have tested everything they sell?
Well no. This is just another variant of the effect I described way back, in which you do a little testing, just enough to indicate ‘promising’ effects, and then never quite get around to doing proper definitive studies. In this way, you can claim to have done randomised, placebo controlled, double blind testing, without actually lying.
Anyhow, it seems that based on some complaints, the TGA has ordered them to cease advertising certain products. In the most recent example, Swisse were called for contravention of section 42C of the Therapeutic Goods Act. To summarise the often obtuse language used in the complaints register, Swisse is allowed to advertise their products without prior permission if no specific therapeutic claims are made. However, if such claims are made, then permission must be sought (and presumably, evidence provided prior to permission being granted). This paragraph from the determination illustrates:
The Panel noted that the advertisement did not consist only of the limited information permitted by these exceptions. It included additional material such as the words “10 Fitness First Platinum 1-year gym memberships to be won”, and clearly legible therapeutic claims such as “liver detox”, “appetite suppressant”, “natural weight loss aid”, “helps support liver health”, “assists detoxification”, “digestion aid”, and “supports detox and digestion”. This additional material took the advertisement outside the scope of the exceptions outlined in section 42C of the Act and sections 3(3) and 6(2) of the Code.
In the case of its ‘Liquid Iron’ product, a complaint made in 2010 was also upheld. In the case, the complainant:
… argued that the claims in the advertisement about constipation, bioavailability, and absorption were not supported by adequate evidence. The complainant alleged that the advertisement therefore breached sections 4(1)(b) and 4(2)(c) of the Code. The complainant also alleged that the advertisement breached section 4(2)(i) of the Code because of claims about safety and side effects.
Interestingly, when the complaint was put to Swisse, the TGA says:
The advertiser acknowledged that “there were several breaches of section 4(1)(b), 4(2)(c), and 4(2)(i)”, and stated that the website had been amended as a result of the complaint.
So instead of defending themselves, and providing the required evidence, they just amended the website. That tells you something.
The list goes on – I’ll let you read it for yourself if you’re interested.
However, the general point is that the Elmores and Swisses of this world just go on with their unethical behaviour, betting on the fact that they won’t be challenged by the average punter out there. And when they finally do get challenged, they just say ‘oops’, and go on making their millions by selling mostly worthless products.