News Analysis: Alternative medicines under threat

With the Alliance for Natural Health poised to bring in PR support to help fight the proposed EU clampdown on the industry, Sarah Robertson analyses the challenge facing the complementary medicine movement.

As the complementary medicine industry - the firms behind treatments such as acupuncture, homeopathy and osteopathy - braces itself for a raft of restrictive EU regulations, plans are well under way to bolster its case with its first major PR campaign and a fresh EU lobbying drive.

The EU's Food Supplements Directive says complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) products must be scientifically proven to be safe. Any supplement that isn't backed by solid research will be banned by Brussels from 2005.

The CAM sector and the pharmaceuticals industry stand at opposite sides of the debate over the forthcoming regulation. Conventional drug manufacturers point to their own highly regulated existence, asking, why it should only be them who are so controlled. And pharma bodies such as the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) believe that alternative remedies are not necessarily safe just because they are natural.

Eliminating customer choice

But CAM representatives such as The Alliance for Natural Health (ANH) - formerly the Free Choice for Supplements Alliance - and the Institute of Complementary Medicine (ICM) say restricting the sale of CAM simply eliminates consumer choice and will hit pharmacists, who rely on the large profit margins of vitamin and mineral supplements.

The vitamin, mineral and herbal substances the EU seeks to outlaw have been used safely by consumers for centuries, argues the CAM movement.

The EU directive is the first in a series of directives that will restrict the CAM market, says ANH executive director Dr Robert Verkerk, who is lobbying in Brussels to sway forthcoming legislation: 'The industry is coming together to fight back and we hope to shape future regulation coming from Europe rather than having to challenge it when it comes through.

'There is pressure from legislation and adverse media. The whole complementary medicine sector has a huge need for PR - pharmaceutical companies have big trade associations with their own press offices, yet we are only a few years old,' he adds.

Consumers are becoming confused by the tit-for-tat arguments filling the media on the risks and benefits of complementary medicine, adds Verkerk.

Kevin Craig, MD of start-up PR firm Pozitiv Communications, one of the agencies in the frame to secure a contract to handle a major PR push for the ANH, says: 'It is about making consumers aware that products used every day will be subject to this regulation. There is an opportunity for more proactive communication to people about the benefits of these products and the care that is taken in their production.'

Hsd communications MD Lesley Scott believes the PR challenge will be about convincing the public, pharmacies and other retailers that they will lose their autonomy to sell CAM: 'If I was trying to stop the legislation, I would try to make people realise that they would be losing a huge amount of alternative therapies and will be restricted to conventional medicine.

They need to use PR to make people realise what this Act means to them.'

But one thing the planned legislation has achieved is to bring together the voices of the CAM industry. ICM director Michael Endacott says: 'The voice of complementary medicines may have been fragmented before but over the past five years there has been an enormous coming together because of the enemy (the EU directive), which is working to take away choice.'

The public's interest in the sector is growing. The CAM market grew by 60 per cent between 1997 and 2003, according to Mintel research, and is now worth £130m per year. Forecasts predict the market will also grow by 45 per cent by 2008 when it will reach £188m.

Yet campaigners claim consumer behaviour continues to be affected by negative publicity spun out of pharmaceutical companies, concerned that their sales could be hit by the growth of CAM.

Verkerk says: 'The negative publicity is preventing people from taking (CAM) because they perceive some risk. Where the publicity is driven from is interesting - there is a PR machine somewhere behind it. Many people argue that the anti-CAM publicity is fuelled by the pharmaceutical industry but it is hard to get evidence for that.

It is a major problem and one of the reasons we are talking to PR agencies.'

The pharmaceutical bodies deny being behind any negative publicity about CAM. ABPI head of media relations Richard Lay says: 'We don't put out negative messages about complementary medicines to the media. There is space for alternative therapies but there should be more scientific proof that these remedies work, rather than taking them because of fantasy or folklore. There is also a danger that people think because herbal remedies are from natural sources, they are safe.'

GP editor Bronagh Miskelly says complementary medicine is being used increasingly by GPs - but that there is not yet enough research about how patients taking conventional medicines react when also taking them.

Those who are fans of CAM may be taken aback to hear that their daily dose supplements could soon be outlawed because they have not been researched as thoroughly as their pharmaceutical equivalents.

However, with a lobbying drive under way and a forthcoming campaign set to break, the future for CAM may not be as bleak as some predict.

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