Public Health expert and consumer advocate Ken Harvey has won this year’s ‘Choice’ Consumer Champion Award from the Australian Consumers’ Association.
An Adjunct Associate Professor in Public Health, Dr Harvey has been working in the field of medicinal drug policy for most of his career.
In the 1970s, while at Royal Melbourne Hospital, he became concerned about the inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics, launching a life-long interest in ethical promotion of medicines.
Today his advocacy for equitable and affordable access to necessary medicines, ethical promotion, rational use and regulatory reform have made him a well-known public figure, and reflect his deep commitment to consumer rights.
It’s a fraught field in which all stakeholders – industry, health professionals, consumers and government – have different agendas and priorities, says Dr Harvey. ‘So it’s important to respect and listen to different points of view while still strongly advocating for consumers.’
Championing their ‘Consumer Champion of the Year’, Choice said Dr Harvey ‘really put himself on the line when he went up against weight-loss company SensaSlim last year’.
Risks of public advocacy
‘When he lodged a complaint about their ads with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), SensaSlim threatened to sue him unless he retracted his comments. He refused, so they sued (but) he won his case. The product was eventually delisted and the principals prosecuted – a real victory for consumers.’
Consumer advocacy has risks. Dr Harvey says he was subjected to SLAPP (strategic litigation against public participation) writs when he did not withdraw his complaint against SensaSlim.
‘While these were ultimately thrown out of court, they highlight the need for Federal legislation to protect whistle-blowers,’ he says. They also showed that many people were prepared to help; a legal fighting fund covered all Dr Harvey’s legal costs.
‘It is an honour to receive recognition for consumer advocacy,’ says Dr Harvey. ‘It’s also a tribute to the many friends, colleagues and organisations that have assisted and supported me over many years.’
Homeopathy and whooping cough
Dr Harvey was involved in recent public debate about homeopathic vaccines and the rise in whooping cough. It’s an area where only a small drop in national immunity can have devastating health affects, especially on very young children.
He says homeopathic vaccinations are ineffective, potentially dangerous and health authorities have failed to stop these products from being advertised and sold.
‘There is no good scientific evidence that homeopathic immunisation works. There are reports in journals of homeopathy, which have been discredited, and there are anecdotal reports by homeopaths, but the plural of anecdote is not evidence,’ says Dr Harvey.
‘The promotion and sale of homeopathic vaccines for the whooping cough epidemic again highlights the need for reform of Australia’s TGA – as well as shortcomings in the Government’s new Complaint Resolution Panel’s (CRP) Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code.
‘The CRP or the TGA need timely and easily applied civil penalties, substantial fines and enforceable undertaking to deter non-compliance with the therapeutic code,’ he says.
Should GPs sell vitamin pills?
Writing in the ‘The Conversation’ in April, Dr Harvey highlighted serious ethical questions following reports of financial inducements to GPs to market a range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and herbs.
‘Why the controversy?’ he asked. ‘First of all, this offer contained a $675 financial inducement to encourage general practitioners to specifically recommend the products of a particular company.
‘Second, encouraging GPs to “on-sell” products to patients, presumably at a lucrative mark-up, runs the risk of encouraging unnecessary or inappropriate prescribing. It also violates the ethical separation of prescribing from dispensing’.
He is also investigating controversial issues relating to advertising and conflicting consumer advice resulting from a corporate tussle over market share for anti-cholesterol drugs since the first generic version of atorvastatin became available on the PBS in April.
Next generation of advocates
Dr Harvey admits that the line of work he is in can be frustrating. ‘But you have to keep on keeping on. Bureaucrats change, politicians change, governments change, but the problems remain the same.’
‘I’ll continue to pursue consumer rights – and I’m also focusing on recruiting and training the next generation of health activists. Consumer rights are continually under threat from those who believe in unrestrained capitalism, big business and small government.
‘We need more young people to work with consumer organisations and universities have an important role to play.’
Dr Harvey was a member of the expert group that drafted the World Health Organization ‘Ethical Criteria for Medicinal Drug Promotion’ and has served as a consumer advocate on many government committees including that dealing with Pharmaceutical Health and Rational use of Medicines. He is Chair of the Governing Council of Health Action International Asia Pacific, a health advocacy organisation set up by Consumers International.
He was on the scientific program committee for the Asia Pacific Conference on National Medicines Policies, held in Sydney in May. Collaborating partners included the National Prescribing Service (the Quality Use of Medicines service agency for Australia’s National Medicines Policy), the Federal Department of Health and Aging and the World Health Organisation.
In 2000 Dr Harvey was elected to the Council of Choice, where he serves as a member of its Policy Advisory Group and now holds a life membership for his ‘services to the consumer movement’.
Choice, described as ‘the people’s watchdog’, is the public face of the Australian Consumers’ Association. A self-funded body, it provides consumers with purchasing advice as a result of independent product testing and, where shonky products require legislative redress, political advocacy. □