NZ Skeptics launch official Facebook page

Facebook has been host to some lively discussion among Kiwis who identify as having a skeptical outlook. These pages are not endorsed by NZ Skeptics Society, and we have no control over their content. Unfortunately, some of the content falls well outside the collective views of the NZ Skeptics committee.

We have now set up an official page on Facebook which will reflect the general views of NZ Skeptics. We’ll be sharing curated content here and making general announcements that are relevant to members of the society and a broader NZ audience.

You can visit the page here.

“Grief vampire” psychic preys on grieving family

We’ve recently seen another example of psychics acting as the “grief vampires” they are and preying on a grieving family.

Northland woman Theres’a Urlich has been missing since February 2018. The family, who have not seen their loved on for over seven months, was recently approached by a psychic with some gory details of what had happened to Theres’a.

The family decided to contact the police. The response from NZ Police is:

Police do not currently work with psychics and it is entirely the decision of the family if they wish to pursue that avenue.

This is a good thing!

NZ Skeptics were approach the the NZ Herald for our response. NZ Skeptics chair Craig Shearer was quoted at length. Read the NZ Herald article for more details.

 

Pharmacy Council Code of Ethics Review Consultation

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The NZ Skeptics are a voice of reason in New Zealand, and aim to promote the scientific method and evidence-based decision making throughout the public sphere. Healthcare decisions are an important part of this ideal, and we strongly support any measures that seek to follow best evidence and help protect consumers from harm. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to have a say in this consultation.

In a similar manner to the “Pharmacy Council Complementary and Alternative Medicines – Statement and Protocol for Pharmacists”, we will refer to these products as “CAM” and “CAM products” within our submission. However we are hesitant to use this acronym because of its inclusion of the word Medicine, where these products have not proven themselves to be medicines.

1. Can you think of any ethical values for the pharmacy profession that appear to be omitted from the revised code?

Yes.

We believe that the current 2011 Pharmacy Council Code of Ethics, which states (in clause 6.9) that pharmacists must “Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy” is, in principle at least, a good guideline for pharmacists.

Many pharmacies currently supply and promote CAM healthcare products for which there is a very obvious lack of credible evidence of efficacy – even with this code of ethics in place. We are concerned that the general trend in New Zealand has been for pharmacies to sell more CAM over time, presumably driven by a situation where many pharmacies struggle to make enough money to remain viable businesses when selling prescription and over-the-counter medicines alone. An example of this trend is that there is an annual Pharmacy Award for the Best Complementary Healthcare Campaign.

Pharmacists, and pharmacies, enjoy a high level of trust from the public due to their knowledge and expertise, and the importance of the task of dispensing prescription medicines and advising patients that has been entrusted to them. Unfortunately, in order to improve their viability as businesses, many pharmacies appear to have decided to trade on that trust and sell CAM products that purport to improve people’s health, but which do not have good quality evidence backing their use.

The vast majority of these CAM products are unlikely to ever be shown to be efficacious (due the lack of any plausible mechanism of action), and in the short term they are harmless at best – if we ignore their direct financial cost to patients. In the long term, however, these ineffective products are likely to damage patients’ health literacy, making them less knowledgeable about what constitutes good healthcare. They will also tend to make patients less likely to seek proper medical care for their health conditions, instead relying on these unproven products for their future health needs.

If pharmacies find that they need to supplement their income by selling products other than prescription and over-the-counter medicines, there are many products that they could sell that are not health related. We think that it would be much better for pharmacists to avoid the risk of ethically unsound practices, and we would expect the Pharmacy Council’s new Code of Ethics to be an aid in ensuring that pharmacies behave ethically in this regard and do not sell any products that have not been proven to work.

Unfortunately the new code of ethics appears to weaken the stance taken by the 2011 code, rather than strengthening it; only requiring that a pharmacist satisfies themselves that a product is appropriate for the patient (clause 1g).

In essence the proposed new code seems to be worded in a way that, in a perfect world, patients would be protected from the sale of ineffective health products. All pharmacists, and pharmacy staff, would have a good level of knowledge of the evidence base for all CAM products they sold, and they would be free of all biases.

However, in reality, there are a wide range of beliefs about CAM amongst pharmacists and pharmacy staff – and not all of these beliefs accord with the best evidence for these products.

The “secret shopper” exercise undertaken by members of the NZ Skeptics two years ago showed that pharmacies, and pharmacists, are more likely to promote an ineffective product (homeopathic products, in the case of our exercise) than to warn of its ineffectiveness. If the behaviour that we saw in 2015 is indicative of the general stance that pharmacies hold with regard to CAM, and we think that this is a fair conclusion, we believe that pharmacists are often not acting in the best interests of the patient when it comes to CAM. They may not be in possession of the best available evidence, and there is also a real risk that a pharmacy’s need to make money can cloud proper judgement when it comes to selling these products.

For these reasons, we consider that leaving individual pharmacists to be the judges of what constitutes a good level of evidence for a CAM product is not prudent. We believe that it is the Pharmacy Council’s responsibility to help pharmacies navigate the myriad of CAM products that are currently on the market, and ensure that they are not selling ineffective products to patients. We think that the Pharmacy Council should not be scared to provide a robust level of guidance for pharmacists when it comes to both unproven and ineffective CAM products.

We believe that this guidance can be effected in part by creating a list of classes of CAM products that have been shown to be ineffective (such as homeopathy), and which should not be sold in pharmacies. The Pharmacy Council should also target the most popular CAM products being sold in pharmacies, and create information resources for both pharmacists and patients explaining the current evidence, or lack of evidence, for these products. These resources could include booklets that are made available in pharmacies, and given out when these products are purchased, and web pages that are placed online, either on the Pharmacy Council’s website or a site specifically for providing information about CAM products.

2. Considering the explanation of the term “patient” and equivalent terms in the key terms (key terms):

a. Do you think the term “patient” is the best word to use, most of the time, to express the relationship that exits between the pharmacist and the person they are directly or indirectly caring for or providing health care information to?

Yes.

We think that the word “patient” is a positive step towards impressing on pharmacists the importance of the relationship they have with the public, and the trust that the public place in pharmacists to behave in a way that is in individual patients’ best interests.

b. Are there any specific clauses where you can think of different term that could be more appropriate?

No

3. Considering the new clauses that relate to the sale of complementary and alternative medicines (CAM, clauses 1g, 4h and 4hh): Do you find it clear that the Council is not opposed to the sale of CAM when they have demonstrated benefits for patients, have minimal risks, and the patient is making an informed choice?

No.

We think that the clauses do not make it clear that they are not opposed to the sale of CAM “when they have demonstrated benefits for patients, have minimal risks, and the patient is making an informed choice”. What the clauses appear to do, instead, is to allow the sale of CAM when an individual pharmacist believes that these products “have demonstrated benefits for patients, have minimal risks, and the patient is making an informed choice”.

This is a subtle, but important, difference. We think that the proposed code would allow for a pharmacist to sell homeopathic products, for example, simply by holding a sincere belief that these products “have demonstrated benefits for patients, have minimal risks, and the patient is making an informed choice”. This belief would not accord with reality, but merely holding it appears to be sufficient to circumvent this code.

To paraphrase the songwriter Tim Minchin, “what do you call Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAM) that have demonstrated benefits for patients? Medicine”

4. Are there any other comments you would like the Council to consider?

Yes.

We would like to see the Pharmacy Council produce a set of clear rules for when a product can be deemed to be ineffective; a clear, transparent process outlined for dealing with complaints against pharmacies selling products that are not evidence based; and clear penalties for pharmacies that are found to be in breach of these guidelines. The new code does not appear to allow for this to happen, and instead we suspect that it is unlikely that the Pharmacy Council will end up using this new code to censure a pharmacy for selling ineffective health products.

We would be interested to find out, given the many apparent breaches of the current code of ethics where pharmacies are selling CAM without credible evidence of efficacy, how often pharmacies have been found by the Pharmacy Council to be in breach of the code, and what action was taken in each case.

We would also like to see the Pharmacy Council introduce a way to effectively measure whether pharmacies are following the code of ethics – some method of proactively auditing the compliance of pharmacies. These checks would have to be incognito, to ensure that an accurate measure is taken of how pharmacies are promoting CAM to patients.

Submission on the Health (Fluoridation of Drinking Water) Amendment Bill

Fluoridation

The NZ Skeptics believe that the available scientific evidence shows community water fluoridation to be both a safe and effective measure for reducing incidence of tooth decay. What we see in the behaviour and tactics of the anti-fluoridation movement in New Zealand echoes similar behaviour we see from other ideologically anti-science groups, such as the anti-vaccination movement. This includes “cherry picking” of only the evidence that supports their position while ignoring any data to the contrary, misrepresenting scientific studies, and flouting New Zealand regulations in order to misinform the public.

 

We believe that the anti fluoridation movement has come out against this bill not because they believe that local councils are better able to make healthcare decisions for the public, but because it is easier for them to influence and subvert these decisions when they are made at a local council level – as we have seen them do in the past.

The Proposal

The NZ Skeptics support the proposed change of moving the decision to fluoridate water supplies away from local councils, and transferring it to District Health Boards

As water fluoridation is a public health measure, we believe that DHBs will be better suited to make an informed decision than local councils are. DHBs have staff on hand who are proficient in reading and analysing scientific studies, and they also monitor the health of their district’s residents. These two skills will allow DHB staff to advise the Board members of each DHB as to whether fluoridation is an appropriate measure.

Other agencies

We would like to note that if a change is made to move the decision making process to central government rather than to DHBs, we would be supportive of this move.

 

Thank you for the opportunity to be able to give our opinion on the proposed change to this important health measure.

Consultation on amendment to the Medical Council’s statement on advertising

Medical CouncilThe Medical Council asked for submissions on a proposed amendment to their statement on advertising in relation to the use of testimonials, with the amendment prohibiting the use of testimonials by doctors in advertising. The consultation asked three questions, and here are the answers that the NZ Skeptics gave:

 

1. Do you agree with Council’s proposed prohibition of the use of testimonials in medical advertising? Why or why not?

We agree. Testimonials are by their nature anecdotal, and as such their use in medical advertising is problematic for a number of reasons. These can be summarised by stating that it is impossible to imply any meaningful evidence of efficacy from a testimonial.

Although testimonials do not demonstrate the efficacy of a treatment, or the ability of a doctor, they do tend to influence a patient’s choice. Many patients will not understand the distinction between evidence and testimonials, and could easily be led to assume that a testimonial is direct validation of a medical service. Evidence offered to aid a patient’s choice, in the form of well designed trials, systematic reviews and meta analyses, should be the kind of supporting evidence offered by a medical practitioner. Prohibiting testimonials would serve to eliminate a potential emotive factor from a patient’s choice, leaving them with the confidence that they have not been unduly influenced in this way.

The widespread use of testimonials by ‘alternative’ medicine practitioners (those that have no scientific evidence or plausibility) is of interest, since it would appear that testimonials might be the last bastion among these practitioners – those that have no other avenue with which to suggest that their services work, except to solicit previous customers who are persuaded by their own experience to write testimonials.  Of course testimonials can be, and often are, ‘cherry picked’ by alternative medicine practitioners, so that only the positive testimonials are shown.

If testimonials were allowed to be relied upon to persuade patients to seek treatment from a medical doctor, there could never be certainty that the true balance of testimonials was in favour of the medical service. Intellectual dishonesty, amounting to data manipulation, could never be ruled out.

Additionally, any tendency for wishful thinking and the “I’ll try anything” rationale, which is human nature (especially among seriously ill patients), is particularly susceptible to the use of testimonials.

 

2. Do you agree with Council’s proposed definition of ‘testimonial’? What other changes (if any) should Council incorporate in its definition of ‘testimonial’?

For the most part, we agree. However we would like to offer a few suggestions.

Firstly, Footnote 7 states “you are not responsible for any unsolicited testimonials or comments that are published on a website or in social media over which you do not have control of”. This seems like a possible loophole, and we wonder if wording about taking reasonable steps to prevent or remove such unsolicited testimonials should be included here. Clearly practitioners should not be held responsible for things said out of their control. However, a less scrupulous practitioner might use this exemption to circumvent the prohibition of testimonials by keeping themselves separated from the direct process of solicitation, perhaps via the use of a proxy.

Secondly, the proposed definition refers specifically to “a doctor’s care, skill, expertise or treatment”. However some websites, such as that of the Apollo Medical Centre (http://www.apollomedical.co.nz/testimonials.php), include testimonials that refer to the centre as a whole rather than to specific named doctors. The following testimonial from ‘Sarah’ is an example of this:

“When I came to Apollo Medical as an acute patient visiting from Wellington, I felt self assured and confident that I was getting very good care.  Everything ran very smoothly with my visits being followed up by the nurse and the results clarified by the doctor.  When it is not your regular medical centre you do feel quite vulnerable, but at Apollo I felt very well cared for, even though I was not a regular patient.  Everyone was very pleasant and kind, and I would not hesitate to go there again if needed.” [Emphasis added]

Sarah refers to her feelings about the quality of care that she received from the medical centre as a whole, including at least one nurse and doctor. It’s unclear whether this type of testimonial would fall under the definition given by the Medical Council, and we suggest rewording to extend the clause to cover testimonials where doctors are a part of the group being endorsed, to the extent that they have control over this advertising.

 

3. Are there any other changes that Council should incorporate to Clause 13?

Yes, we would like to see Council include a sentence such as “Doctors should not solicit patients to submit testimonials to third party websites” in Clause 13, or alternatively in Footnote 7.

Submission on The Regulation of Natural Health Products consultation

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Below is the NZ Skeptics’ submission on the recent Regulation of Natural Health Products consultation, run by the Ministry of Health. The consultation is related to the Natural Health and Supplementary Products bill, which is likely to become a new piece of New Zealand legislation in the near future. Our submission is a point by point response to the questions raised by the consultation document, which can be found, along with supporting documents, at:

http://www.health.govt.nz/publication/regulation-natural-health-products-consultation

 

The Regulation of Natural Health Products

 

Ingredients

 

1. Are there other criteria that the Committee should consider when adding a substance to the permitted substances list?

Yes. Possible interactions with both prescription pharmaceuticals and other natural health products should be considered when adding a substance to the permitted substances list.

A history of safety issues and patterns of historical misuse of a substance should also be considered. This history should be gathered from reliable sources located globally, not just in New Zealand.

 

2. Of the criteria proposed, are there any that you think should not be considered by the Committee when adding a substance to the permitted substances list?

No. All of the proposed criteria appear to be important for ensuring the safety of substances, and we hope that they all become part of the final criteria used to evaluate substances.

 

3. Should the criteria to be considered by the Committee be weighted or ranked in some way?

Yes. Concern for safety is paramount, so any safety assessment should hold increased weight.

 

4. Do you agree that full formulation details of proprietary ingredients should be disclosed?

Yes. We wholeheartedly agree that full formulation details should always be disclosed to both the Authority and consumers. The safety of consumers relies on all ingredients and amounts being known, and matters of consumer safety should always trump those of commercial interest. We also believe that for consumers to be able to make informed choices about their healthcare, they have a right to know the ingredients of any healthcare product they are taking.

 

5. Are there substances that could be added to or should be removed from the draft permitted substances list?

Yes. Although we did not have the resources to check through the entire list of draft permitted substances, we were very surprised at how long the list was. Ideally we would like to see all substances, outside of those with a proven therapeutic benefit, having to go through a submission process which involves the paying of a fee, rather than automatically being added at no cost. This ensures that due diligence is performed on all substances.

Health benefit claims

 

6. Are the following factors the right ones to consider when deciding if claims may be made about named conditions:

  • non-serious
  • self-limiting
  • suitable for self-management
  • suitable for self-diagnosis
  • likely to cause serious consequences without health practitioner consultation?

Yes. These are a good minimum set of conditions. No claims should be made for conditions that do not take into consideration all of these factors. These factors would benefit from being turned into a more formal, precise set of rules, to ensure they are consistently applied to all potential allowed conditions.

 

7. Should other factors be considered?

Yes. We believe that conditions should only be added to the allowed list if it has been found by the Authority that at least one natural health product has been shown to be effective in treating the condition. This would go some way towards showing a plausibility for other natural health products also having the potential to have a positive effect on the condition.

 

8. Should the factors be weighted or ranked in some way?

Yes. The factors that have a more direct effect on consumer health risks should be ranked higher, e.g. the seriousness of the condition.

 

9. Are there conditions you think should be added to or removed from the draft list of conditions about which health claims may be made?

Yes. There are several items on the list of conditions that are prefixed or suffixed with “unspecified”, such as “bacterial infection unspecified” and “allergy, unspecified”. We wonder if some of these definitions are too broad, and should either be removed or replaced with specific conditions.

We recommend that time is spent on ensuring this list is acceptable to a range of health professionals (accredited medical science health professionals, rather than alternative therapy professionals) and any relevant professional bodies (again we would prefer to see no alternative therapy professional bodies involved, given their conflict of interest).

We would also like to see an explicit provision for the regulations about health claims to include any claims made within the name of a natural health product. We are concerned that some products currently have names which make health claims, including naming specific medical conditions in the product name. Examples of products sold in New Zealand with this issue are:

Evidence

Relevance and representativeness of evidence

 

10. Are there other criteria that should be included, or should any of the listed criteria be excluded?

Yes. We think that it is not enough for evidence to “not conflict with a wider body of evidence”. It would be better to have the reverse of this criteria, that evidence should “agree with a wider body of evidence”. This strengthens the criteria to ensure that a single study would not be considered sufficient evidence, in cases where there has been a lack of research conducted on a product’s efficacy.

Traditional evidence

 

11. Are these appropriate sources of traditional evidence?

No. Ideally, there should be no mention of historical use when it comes to the marketing of natural health products and no claims should be able to be made about a product on the basis of this traditional evidence. Our understanding is that historical use does not have a good track record when it comes to proving either that a product is able to treat a medical condition, or that the product is safe. The vast majority of natural health products with evidence of historical use to treat a condition have either a) not been proven to actually treat the condition or b) been positively shown to not treat the condition.

At least some consumers are likely to be led to believe that evidence of historical use is evidence of efficacy. If this information is allowed to be used in any way for making health claims about a product, those consumers will be misled into thinking that the product is able to treat a health condition. This should be enough of a reason to ensure that historical use is not allowed to be used as evidence for a natural health product.

It is telling that the section on traditional evidence in the guidelines is so much shorter than the section on scientific evidence. The scientific method is a well tested way of testing whether claims are true or not, and as such it is necessarily strict about how scientific tests are conducted and what can be considered an acceptable level of evidence. Traditional evidence, on the other hand, is not encumbered by a requirement to prove that its claims are true – merely that its claims are old. Accepting traditional evidence, in any form, is enacting a great disservice to New Zealanders, who rely on the government to ensure they are protected from ineffective or dangerous treatments.

If historical use will be allowed as evidence, there are some issues that we have with the guidelines.

We do not believe that an individual should be taken on authority when making claims about whether there is evidence of traditional use for a treatment. Written documented evidence of historical use should be a bare minimum accepted, and this should be evaluated critically before being accepted. No matter what the position of an individual in a culture, their claims should be subjected to scrutiny – arguments from authority should not be accepted.

We are also worried about the pharmacopoeia that have been listed. We believe that these should not be taken on face value as evidence of traditional use, and that external validation of their claims must be required. Obviously, for any volume first published before the traditional use time period, this would be sufficient evidence that the treatments listed within the volume fit the criteria of traditional use. However, we are concerned that some of these pharmacopoeia may contain treatments that have only relatively recently been used.

In fact, any single source that claims historic use of a natural health product should not be taken at face value. Multiple independent forms of evidence should be required before it is accepted that a product has a long history of use.

 

12. Are there other sources of traditional evidence that should be accepted?

No. We are concerned that the existing sources of traditional evidence are already too broad, and that the average consumer will give traditional use claims more weight than they merit. Adding more sources would only exacerbate this problem.

 

13. Do you think 75 years is an appropriate minimum period of use for something to be considered to be traditionally used?

No. We consider that use should only be considered as traditional if it pre-dates the spread of the scientific method in medicine. A useful yardstick for this date is the publication of An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine by Claude Bernard in 1865. At the very least, we believe that a fixed date should be chosen for deciding if something has been traditionally used, to simplify management of which treatment types are considered to qualify or not qualify. If a time period is used (e.g. 75 years), the Authority will need to track when treatments change from not qualifying as being traditionally used to qualifying. Given the large number of natural health products available, this could be burdensome task.

Scientific evidence

 

14. Are there other factors we should consider when determining if a type of study is acceptable?

Yes. The guidelines suggest linking the level of study considered acceptable as evidence with the risk of using a product. We do not consider this to be a sensible position to take. The level of evidence required should not be linked to the risk of taking the product, but only to the level of claims being made about the product. The more specific and definite the medical claims, the higher the level of evidence that should be supplied. Whether the product is low or high risk, however, should not influence the level of evidence deemed acceptable.

We consider that peer review is an absolute minimum for deciding that a type of study is acceptable. Allowance will have to be made for the varying quality of peer reviewed journals, especially given the proliferation of unscrupulous journals in recent years that have been known to compromise on peer review. A good overview of this issue can be read at http://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6154/60.full

 

15. Are the types of studies that are acceptable clear?

No. It is not clear that all the types of studies listed have a requirement that they are peer reviewed. We believe that this requirement is important and should be explicitly mentioned.

 

16. Should other types of studies be considered acceptable?

No. Some of the existing list of types of studies considered acceptable are already at what appears to be a lower standard than would be acceptable to MedSafe or the Advertising Standards Authority as evidence of efficacy. Any further adding of acceptable types of studies would only risk weakening this consumer safeguard.

Summary of evidence

 

17. Are the evidence guidelines clear?

No. The Draft Guidelines for Natural Health Products Evidence Requirements document contains several worrying details.

There is a statement that “Scientific evidence does not take precedence over traditional evidence”, in the General requirements for evidence section of the guidelines. We are concerned that it is not clear from the document what reasoning has been used to discern that traditional and scientific evidence are equal in this way.

It is our understanding that science has made great strides in providing us all with affordable, effective healthcare, whereas most traditional treatments have not been adopted by modern medicine precisely because they have not been shown to be effective. To equate the two forms of evidence is to totally ignore the fact that the scientific method has proven itself time and time again, and has earned the right to be considered a more trustworthy way of proving a claim than has the simple idea that something has been used for a long time. Many treatments that have a long history of use are now known to be dangerous, such as bloodletting and purging.

Given that evidence of traditional use is, in effect, evidence that a treatment was developed when we were a lot more ignorant that we are now about medicine and healthcare, we strongly resist the idea that the two should be given equal footing.

This principle of not accepting scientific evidence over traditional evidence leads to the unfortunate statement later in the guidelines that “Traditional claims that have been scientifically proven not to be correct can still be made”. We believe that this is unacceptable, and that if there is good quality positive scientific evidence to show that a claim is false, that claim should not be allowed to be made at all – including in the context of historical use.

We believe that all evidence should be available in English. The guidelines state that “The evidence that you hold to support your claim must be in English, or you must be able to provide a verified English translation if requested by the Authority.“ We believe that it is important to allow consumers to be adequately informed, and as such an English version of any evidence held should always be made available in an easily accessible format.

We would like to see provision made for consumers to have access to the full text of any studies cited in support of a health benefit claim. It would be disappointing to have natural health companies making claims that cannot be readily verified because the studies cited are locked behind a paywall and out of reach of consumers due to the cost involved. Given how often we have seen natural health companies claim that a study supports their position, where a subsequent reading of the text has shown that the company has either accidentally or deliberately misconstrued the results of the study, we feel that making it easy for consumers to verify a given summary of a scientific text would be beneficial.

The list of health benefit claims given in the guideline are inclusive, which is laudable. The five claims given are:

  • maintenance or promotion of health or wellness
  • nutritional support
  • vitamin or mineral supplementation
  • affecting or maintaining the structure or function of the body
  • relief of symptoms.

Given these definitions, we hope that the new regulations will cover the types of claims that are currently exempted by TAPS Guideline 13, such as:

  • Helps smooth digestion
  • Aids the digestive process
  • Supports normal digestion
  • A natural approach for digestion

We believe that these claims are all likely to mislead consumers into thinking that a product is effective for a given health condition, and as such the new regulations should require evidence for these claims.

For products that come under the purview of the new regulations, we would like to see provision to ensure that companies don’t deliberately use vague claims to avoid having to supply supporting evidence. For example, non-specific claims about “the immune system” or “mental wellbeing” should not be allowed.

 

18. Are there other evidence-related topics that should be included in these guidelines?

No.

Manufacturing

The Code of Manufacturing Practice

 

19. Do you agree with the proposed Code of Manufacturing Practice?

No. We have problems with the general thrust of the Code, as it is summarised in the consultation document.

We see no reason for there to be any gap between the legislation and the Code of Manufacturing Practice coming into force. We hope and assume that most natural health product manufacturers are already following a code of manufacturing practice that is closely aligned with the proposed new Code, and so meeting the requirements of this Code should be a quick and simple task.

We also strongly disagree with the principle that the manufacturing regulation of natural health products should be proportionate to the risks of their use. We feel that manufacturing risks are independent of the risk of a product’s use, as these risks come from outside of the intended use of a product. For example, contamination of a product is an equally risk-laden issue whether the product itself is considered low risk or high risk .

Manufacturing exemptions

 

20. How frequently should audits be required? Should this differ for different levels of risk?

We agree that it is acceptable for audit frequency to depend on risk. We think that the risk level should be informed by such measurements as the history of a manufacturer’s prior infringements and the compliance history of the product with other manufacturers.

We do not agree that there should provision for any manufacturer to be exempt from auditing.

 

21. Do you think there should be exemptions from manufacturing licensing?

No. If anything, small volume manufacturers of natural health products have a greater potential to create products that carry risk. All consumers deserve the same protection, whether they are purchasing a product from a high volume manufacturer or a small scale manufacturer.

Fees

 

22. Are these the right things for the Authority to charge for? Are there other things for which the Authority should charge?

We are not concerned with the services that the Authority will charge for.

 

23. Are the charges structured appropriately?

We are not concerned with the structure of the charges.

 

24. Do you have any comment on the proposal that notification be for a July–June financial year, and/or the proposals to handle the transition period?

No.

 

25. Do you have any comment on the level of the charges?

Yes. Although we have no specific recommendations for fees, we believe that overall the annual amount collected in fees should be sufficient to fund a robust system of proactive regulation. These fees should allow for:

  • Frequent manufacturing audits
  • Random manufacturing spot checks
  • Independent product checks to ensure the accuracy of both the ingredient list and listed dosages
  • Frequent evidence checks for evidence supplied in product notifications
  • The use of qualified scientists in relevant fields to evaluate supplied scientific evidence

Ideally, we would prefer to see the product registration system as an approvals based system rather than a notification system. We think that an enforced check of all product registrations should be performed, and that the natural health products industry should bear the cost of this process via product registration fees.

We would like to see the Authority make provision for a robust, proactive, transparent complaints procedure. Ideally this procedure would involve the proper consideration of all complaints laid before it, rather than a cherry picking of only those complaints deemed to be the worst offences. We would also like to see this procedure made as transparent as possible, with the complainant kept informed at all stages of a complaint’s processing, and information on complaints and their outcomes made public on a website. The website should also allow for online complaint filing, and have clear instructions on how to make a complaint and what kinds of issues merit a complaint.

 

26. Do you have any comment on the assumptions around volumes each year? Would you expect higher volumes in the first year?

No.

 

27. How many products do you anticipate notifying initially, and in the next two to three years?

No, we have no expectation around this.

 

28. Do you agree that manufacturers are best placed to commission any quality control activities, such as audit, that might be required by the Code of Manufacturing Practice?

No. We consider that allowing product manufacturers to self audit is taking an unacceptable risk. Natural product manufacturers should not be trusted to be able to effectively police themselves, especially given the global track record for natural products failing to conform to their stated ingredients lists:

 

29. Are there additional issues relating to fees and charges that you would like us to consider?

No.

Very low-volume products

 

30. Do you see a case for reducing fees for very low-volume products?

No. Fees should be reduced in circumstances where it can be shown that associated costs are lowered. However, we do not see how a low-volume product would entail a lower cost to the Authority in managing the product registration, and so we do not believe that these products should qualify for reduced fees.

 

31. How would you define very low-volume products?

We believe that any natural health product, even one that is custom made for a consumer with a volume of only a single unit, should be regulated. Therefore, although we have no recommendation of an upper limit for what is considered low-volume, our lower limit would be 1.

 

32. Do you have any suggestions for the design of any provisions, including:

  • limits on the number of products that any notifier can have fee exemptions for
  • administrative efficiency
  • any other issues that might be associated with low-volume products?

 

No.

Labelling

 

33. Do you agree that labels should meet the proposed presentation requirements?

Yes. There should be a procedure in place to ensure all labels meet the requirements before a product can be sold, and a process for consumers to report products that fail to meet the labelling standards.

 

34. Are the proposed minimum labelling requirements the right ones?

Yes. The labelling requirements are well thought out, and will help to protect consumers through allowing them to be sufficiently informed about the product.

 

35. Should product labels include unique identifiers?

Yes. Unique identifiers should be on all labels, and there should be provision for this identifier to be searchable in an online product database of all registered natural health products.

Given the proliferation of internet enabled smartphones, we would like to see this process made as simple as possible by the inclusion of a QR code on labels as an added unique identifier. This code, when scanned by the consumer’s smartphone camera, would open the product registration webpage in a browser on the consumer’s phone. The technology to allow this to happen is already freely available, so the cost to add this feature would be minimal.

The unique identifier section of a label could look like this example:

NHP QR Code

 

36. Is there any other information that should be included, or should any of the listed information be excluded?

Yes. We believe that intended purpose of the product should only be allowed to be included on the label if there is scientific evidence to underpin the claim. We do not consider historical evidence alone to be sufficient to warrant the inclusion of a claim that the product is able to treat any medical condition.

If evidence of historical use is allowed to be included on product labels, we believe that it should be accompanied by a disclaimer which explains that the claim does not constitute evidence of efficacy. The disclaimer could take the form of:

Traditionally used for x. This is not evidence that this product is able to treat any medical condition, only that it was believed to do so in the past.

Notification

 

37. Is there information that you think should be included in, or excluded from the notification process?

Yes. We think that, along with the summary of evidence, a summary of risk should be included. Manufacturers should be expected to have researched any risks associated both with each active ingredient and with the formula of ingredients. Any adverse effects recorded in medical journals or databases from around the world should be summarised and included in the report, along with links to the source data.

 

38. What information that we are proposing be notified do you think should not be made publicly available and why?

None. We believe that full transparency is important to allow consumers to make an informed choice about their healthcare.

 

39. Should products that sell in less than a certain quantity per year be exempt from notification?

No. We believe that any exemption to notification is a risk. If exemptions to notification are to be allowed, this should be related to risk. We do not consider the quantity sold to be a reliable indicator of reduced risk to the consumer.

 

40. Should products for which the annual sales amount is less than a certain figure per year be exempt from notification?

No. Similarly to question 39, We do not consider the annual sales amount to be a reliable indicator of reduced risk to the consumer.

 

41. Should exemptions on other grounds be considered?

No. We think that the exemptions listed in the consultation document, for one-off products and homeopathic products, will both increase the risk to consumers. The only way to ensure that these products are safe is to subject them to the same regulations as other natural health products.

The three main risks with natural health products, as defined in an overview at the beginning of the consultation document, are that:

  1. The ingredients in the product could be unsafe.
  2. Consumers may delay seeking conventional medical treatment.
  3. Products could be manufactured in an unsafe way.

We consider all of these risks to apply to both homeopathy and one-off products, as much as they do to other natural health products.

For example, with homeopathy, the only way to ensure that an active ingredient has been diluted to the point that it is safe, and that there no contaminants due to unsafe manufacturing, is to test the product. An easy way to ensure the safety of homeopathic products is to not exempt it from the regulations. Failing that, there should be provision that exempted products carry a warning that they are not covered by the regulations. This warning could look like:

This health product has been exempted from regulation by the Natural Health Products framework. Any health claims made by this product have not been vetted in any way.

We are concerned that if homeopathic and other exempt products are not covered by the new regulations, consumers will assume that they are covered and will not notice the lack of regulatory labelling on these products. As such, the warning above would need to be made obvious on the packaging.

Homeopathy is well known as a natural health product that has caused consumers to delay medical treatment. A website called What’s the Harm has documented some of these cases from around the world at http://whatstheharm.net/homeopathy.html

 

42. To be fair to all product notifiers, how should requests for exemptions be verified to ensure they actually qualify?

We believe that exemptions are anathema to the idea of ensuring consumer safety. We hope that no ad hoc exemptions would be accepted, as they would allow a product to bypass this scheme – a scheme which is rightly designed to protect consumers.

Recognised authorities

 

43. Are there any additional purposes for which you think the Authority should also consider recognising other authorities?

Yes. We would be happy for other authorities to be recognised for several purposes, as long as those authorities can be shown to be both impartial and proficient. The purposes we think are suitable are:

  • Analysis of any health claims being made
  • Testing of product ingredients
  • Manufacturing spot checks

 

44. Are there any purposes for which you think the Authority should not consider recognising other authorities?

No.

 

45. What other authorities do you think the Authority should recognise and for what purpose?

As we have said previously in this submission, we believe that product registration should be an approvals rather than a notification system. We think that MedSafe would potentially be a proficient authority for tasks such as analysing the scientific evidence for product approvals.

Determining if your product is a permitted natural health product

 

46. Does the flow chart to determine if your product is a permitted natural health product make sense to you?

Yes. We wonder if an interactive version of this flow chart would be a useful addition to a Natural Health Product website that we presume will be created – maybe a list of questions with Yes/No buttons to answer them.

 

47. Are there other considerations that we should take into account?

No.

Other Issues

We hope to see the Natural Health Products website become a useful resource for finding information about all information useful to consumers, such as registered products (including full ingredients, the evidence summary, etc), deregistered products, permitted substances, allowed conditions, consumer complaints and manufacturer fines. To that end, we would like to see that an API is placed in front of this data to allow easy access, in accordance with the government’s commitment to Open Data. We also hope to see the website make use of modern technologies such as responsive design and Microdata, along with extensive hyperlinking, to make the site intuitive and easy to navigate on handheld devices as well as full sized computer screens.

We thank the Ministry of Health for giving us the opportunity to submit our thoughts on this new, important piece of legislation. We hope that our ideas are helpful in finalising the specifics of the bill and associated guidelines, and we would be keen to engage further with the Ministry on this topic in any way that we can help.

Palm Reading claims – our response

PalmWe were asked today to comment on an article on Stuff about palm reading, and how seeing the letter M on your non-dominant hand is a sign of future success. Luckily, despite it being Christmas Eve, our new Media Spokesperson (and Secretary) Craig Shearer was able to put together a solid response on short notice! Here’s the response in full:

 


People are good at seeing patterns in everyday life, even when no actual pattern exists. Suggesting a pattern to somebody will greatly improve the chances of them seeing it, even if it’s just one of many equally valid interpretations of what they are looking at. Think about when you see a pattern in the clouds. You can make somebody else see it much more easily if you tell them what they are looking at – a dog or a dragon, for example.

The creases on people’s palms have some connection to their development embryonically – and there are certain instances where genetic diseases can correlate with particular patterns of creases. However, it’s drawing a very long bow to suggest that the pattern of creases on a person’s palms would have any predictive effect on their life “success” – however success may be measured.

Palm readers work in a similar manner to psychics and clairvoyants – usually picking up on little cues from a personal reading that gives the person the answers they’re expecting to hear. In Jon’s case, however, this statement relating to all people with the letter M on their non-dominant hand appears to be more akin to astrology. He has offered some generically positive predictions that are bound to make anyone feel good.

The real test for these types of claims would be to see whether a particular pattern can be repeatedly and reliably matched up with a particular life outcome, without the palm reader knowing who the subjects are.

This article has an interactive survey asking readers whether they have a distinctive M pattern on their hands. At the time the NZ Skeptics were asked to comment on the article, of those surveyed a whopping 83% can see the M. This is a pretty clear demonstration of the suggestive nature of this type of fortune telling. A mixture of an identifying feature that appears to fit most people, along with a set of predictions that make people feel good, will usually hit the mark for many and make them feel positive about the accuracy of a reading.

One potentially dangerous aspect to this is that it encourages thinking that your life’s outcome is predetermined – that your life is in the hands of your genetics or fate. Even if most people find an “M” on their non-dominant hand, and are led to believe that they will have a successful future, what of those that can’t see the “M” who have a belief in palm reading? Will they walk away from this believing that their life going forward will not be successful?

While the patterns on your palms may well be fascinating, it pays to be skeptical of claims that don’t have solid evidence of their worth, particularly when someone is asking for money in return for their service.

Herman Petrick’s Ghost-busting Claims

Herman PetrickThe Taranaki Daily News published an article about Herman Petrick, who claims to be able to help people by removing harmful negative energy. The author of the article, Taryn Utiger, asked the NZ Skeptics to respond to five questions about Herman’s claims. Here are our responses in full:

  1. Is there any scientific proof that negative energy exists or does not exist?

There’s no evidence that the type of negative spiritual energy Herman talks about exists, and no scientific basis for the concept of these energies. Although it can never be positively proven that this kind of energy doesn’t exist, every attempt so far to prove that it does exist has failed and this lack of evidence suggests that it’s unlikely there is any such a thing as spiritual energy.

Herman’s website doesn’t appear to have any evidence to back up his claims, just many assertions about negative energy and how he can help you to clear this energy for a price.

 

  1. Why should people be careful when dealing with people who claim to have special powers or skills?

There are many potential risks when dealing with people who claim to have a connection to, or understanding of, other-worldly powers or energies.

The most immediate concern is that people are often asked to pay money to the practitioner, and it’s generally not a good idea to pay for any service that doesn’t have a good evidence base. In Herman’s case, he states that he’s charging between $50 and $250 for a service where he has no proof that it does anything at all.

Some supernatural practitioners have also been known to take large sums of money from vulnerable people – using tactics such as gaining their trust or telling the unwary person that their money needs “cleansing”. Although this is relatively rare, there are several cases in New Zealand of this happening, along with many more around the world – and the effects can be devastating.

Beyond monetary issues, belief in pseudoscientific ideas such as those of spirit energies, ghosts and other supernatural entities and powers can cause people to make bad life decisions. People have been known to refuse proper medical care, make harmful financial choices and act on bad work or relationship advice.

Often the people who are targeted by those claiming to be able to use special powers are the most vulnerable in society. In Herman’s case, it is worrying to see that a lot of the cases he purports to be able to treat may be attributable to mental health issues, and there are even claims on his website that he can treat “any mental illness” as these are supposedly signs of “negative attachments”.

 

  1. What would your advice be to anyone who considers using services like these?

If you’re considering employing the services of someone who claims to have supernatural abilities, ask for evidence that the claims they make about their abilities are true. Testimonials should not be considered as sufficient evidence, as clients are often mistaken about whether something works or not.

The level of evidence should be proportional to the strength of the claims being made. If someone is claiming something that sounds unlikely to be true or doesn’t line up with what science has taught us about the world we live in, make sure you set a very high bar for the quality of evidence you are willing to accept from them as proof of their claims.

If you want to check the internet for more information, be aware that all sorts of claims are made on websites of varying quality. Wikipedia is a good place to start, and the “See also” and “External links” sections usually contain links to more good quality information on a topic. If the claim is related to your health (including mental health), talk to your GP about what they think.

If you decide to take the plunge and visit someone claiming they can help you via supernatural means, take a friend along with you who you trust not to let you spend money on something that’s not worth it. Especially if the issue you are seeking help with is a very emotional one for you, it’s a good idea to have someone there that will help to ensure you don’t make any rash decisions.

 

  1. Why do you believe people claim to have these powers?

It’s hard to guess the motivations and beliefs of people who make these kinds of claims, but they seem to fall into two broad categories.

Firstly, there are the people who are, at some level, aware that they are not in possession of the powers they claim to have. These people may have ways of justifying what they do, such as that they are bringing solace to grieving people or that if they weren’t helping this person, someone less scrupulous would be doing it.

Secondly, others seem to have never taken the time to critically check out their claims. They truly believe that they have special abilities, and positive feedback from their clients helps to bolster this belief (of course, there are many reasons why a client may give positive feedback despite the service they’ve received not actually making a difference). Confirmation bias can help people to remember the positive seeming results they see when offering their services, but forget the times that their powers didn’t seem to work. Along with other biases that our brains use to make sense of the world, someone claiming supernatural powers can easily end up with the mistaken belief that their powers are real.

 

  1. Is there anything you would like to add?

If Herman is serious about his claims, the NZ Skeptics would be keen to help him to test his abilities under controlled conditions. It is important that he takes the time to back up the claims that he is making. The alternative, that he continues to charge people money for a service that he can’t prove is real, would be disappointing to say the least.

NZ Skeptics announce 2015 Awards

The Pharmacy Council has been awarded the 2015 Bent Spoon Award from the NZ Skeptics for proposing a change to their Code of Ethics that would allow the sale of healthcare products that have not been shown to work.

The Pharmacy Council is responsible under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act for setting standards of ethical conduct for pharmacists in New Zealand.

Section 6.9 of their 2011 Code of Ethics states that pharmacists can only supply or promote products where there is no reason to doubt their quality or safety, and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.

Groups such as the NZ Skeptics and the Society for Science Based Healthcare have identified pharmacies selling unproven “remedies” such as homeopathy, and put pressure on the Pharmacy Council to enforce their Code of Ethics.

In response, in August 2015 the Pharmacy Council proposed to change the wording of their code.

This proposed change would allow the sale of “complementary therapies” that are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy.

Chair of the NZ Skeptics, Mark Honeychurch, said:

It’s disappointing that the Pharmacy Council would even consider that weakening their Code of Ethics is a good solution to the problem they have of non-compliant pharmacists.

Surely it makes more sense to educate pharmacists about what is and isn’t ethical to sell, and for the Council to be more effective in policing this section of the code – rather than to change their code to allow unethical behaviour.

Each year the NZ Skeptics announces the Bent Spoon Award for the New Zealand organisation which has shown the most egregious gullibility or lack of critical thinking on a science-related issue.

A close runner-up for the Bent Spoon award was TV3’s 3D current events show, with their episode “Cause or Coincidence?” which suggested that the Gardasil vaccine was to blame for two unexplained deaths of New Zealand girls, along with others who have suffered from illnesses after receiving the vaccination.

In addition to the Bent Spoon, the NZ Skeptics’ Bravo Awards praise a number of attempts to encourage critical thinking over the past year.

This year’s winners are:

  • Rosanna Price (Fairfax Media) for her coverage in Stuff of All Black Waisake Naholo’s “miracle” natural cure for a fractured leg bone.
  • Simon Mitchell (University of Auckland) for his very strong rebuttal of the claims made in an NZ Herald article of 12 September, 2015 entitled: “Hope is in the air: Hyperbaric chambers – the real deal or a placebo?”
  • Adam Smith (Massey University) for his article in the NZ Herald countering the claims made in TV3’s 3D episode “Cause or Coincidence?”
  • Ben Albert (University of Auckland) for his effort in writing an excellent submission to the Pharmacy Council, and his rallying of healthcare professionals to put together a letter to the editor of the New Zealand Medical Journal.

Also this year, the Denis Dutton award for New Zealand Skeptic of the Year was given to Daniel Ryan for his work as President of Making Sense of Fluoride, as well as for his skeptical activism efforts for the Society for Science Based Healthcare and his commitment to helping the NZ Skeptics Society.

The awards were conferred at the NZ Skeptics Conference, held in Christchurch from the 20th to 22nd of November 2015.

NZ Skeptics Awards: http://skeptics.nz/awards
NZ Skeptics Conference: http://conference.skeptics.nz

Edward Linney – Pharmacy Council Code of Ethics Consultation Response

Submission relating to proposals by the Pharmacy Council to alter Clause 6.9 of the code of Ethics

I am Edward Linney a consumer with an active interest in evidence based medicine.

I do not support the intent of clause 6.9b to avoid a requirement of credible evidence of efficacy for complementary therapy or other healthcare products.

Extract from consultation document

Proposed supplementary wording – two distinct parts – clause 6.9

6.9a     “Only supply or promote any medicine or herbal remedy where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.”

 

6.9b     “Only supply any complementary therapy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when sufficient information about the product can be provided in order for thepurchaser to make an informed choice with regard to the risks and benefits of all the available treatment options.”

 

The addition of 6.9b explicitly avoids any requirement for there to be credible evidence of efficacy. It moves the roles of evaluation of scientific evidence from the scientists to the consumer. This is bizarre, we all understand that the patient purchasing the homeopathic remedy for example is a believer and is most unlikely to be able to make an informed decision in the complex task of selecting the best products to treat themselves with.

Pharmacies are businesses BUT they are run by scientifically qualified people and they trade on this image. They are the only place where the public can purchase prescribed pharmaceuticals. Pharmacists enjoy a very privileged position in that regard. In my view the public expects you to sell and promote products which are shown in appropriate testing to perform better than a placebo, in short evidence based products.

The National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia ( The Government if you will) published an unqualified opinion in March 2015 after wide public consultation and a meta analysis of many trials that homeopathy is no more effective than placebo in treating humans. It comes as no surprise to me that when the credibility of these products which are actively promoted and sold in all my local pharmacies is vanishing that the Council proposed to avoid the requirement for efficacy in the sale of these to the public by pharmacies.

I believe there is a connection between the growing awareness that homeopathic remedies are placebos and the intention to explicitly avoid efficacy in the code of ethics in relation to their sale in pharmacies. It is a business protection step taken now to ensure that members of the public cannot take pharmacies to task for breaches of their code of ethics.

I submit it is totally unethical for the Council to put in place a provision whereby a scientifically trained seller uses that credibility to then sell known placebos as if they have efficacy. It is a betrayal of the science that trained them and a cynical exploitation of their status as health professionals. I wonder if pharmacists will have a warning label on these products which states they have NO active ingredients and they are no more effective than placebos. Perhaps the Council, if it wishes to see pharmacists selling these products should insist on a step like this, that would be the truth and assist the informed choice you are advocating. It was not so long ago that the pharmacies used to say “the health professional you see most often”, sadly you cannot make this claim today given current practice in selling known placebos.

It is telling that the consultation document suggests not promoting or recommending products which lack efficacy but is unwilling to take the ethical step of including efficacy explicitly in the code. It is simply duplicitous and puts commercial gain ahead of evidence based operations in patient and public outcomes.

The Council should retain the requirement at all times when selling products that claim to assist medical situations that there MUST be credible evidence of efficacy. Not to do so is in breach of the duty of Council to promote good practice and protect the public by being complicit in the public opting for remedies which are placebos and thereby not using genuinely efficacious products that have been proven by proper trials. The patient outcomes are likely worsened if a placebo is used in place of the best treatment.

Pharmacies seek to be taken seriously and want to expand on their offering in the evidence based market by adding things like Wharferin testing for example. They cannot have it both ways they are either just a peddler of anything the public wants or are serious health professionals. Your decisions in this matter will answer that question.

Edward Linney

Pharmacy Council Response Submitted

Pharmacy Council Code of EthicsThe NZ Skeptics sent a submission to the Pharmacy Council last Friday in response to the Council’s consultation on a suggested change to their Code of Ethics. Thanks to all our members who took the time to visit pharmacies and send us your reports about what they had to say about homeopathy.

We know of at least three other submissions that were in a similar vein to ours, including a submission from the Society for Science Based Healthcare, one from Edward Linney and a great response from the New Zealand Medical Association.