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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18465


Mr SCIACCA (7:44 PM) —When news of the Pan Pharmaceuticals recall first broke, and as the list of complementary medicines recommended for return grew and grew over the next few days, there was widespread concern amongst the many hundreds of people in my electorate of Bowman who use vitamin supplements, herbal remedies and other forms of natural medicine on a daily basis. It was a feeling that I am sure was shared by the many thousands of people across Australia who subscribe to natural medicines and therapies. Regretfully, this uncertainty has not been abated by the Howard government's decision to put together an expert committee to examine complementary medicines in the health care system. On the contrary, many complementary health care professionals and their patients are wary about the possible implications of the report, which is due to be handed down on Friday, for the affordability and availability of natural medicines and the future of the alternative health care industry.

The Centre for Integrated Medicine, a practice that focuses on providing quality alternative health care to residents in the Redland shire and surrounding areas, is located next door to my electorate office in Capalaba. A few weeks ago, I received a visit from Christine Houghton, a nutritional biochemist and chiropractor from the centre, who has been practising in our community for nearly 30 years. Christine wanted to make me aware of the reservations she had about the expert committee and its terms of reference. My constituent is just one of many hundreds of complementary health care professionals who believe it is unreasonable to turn a quality assurance issue relating to one manufacturer, albeit a large one, into a full-scale review of the industry.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has comprehensive powers to regulate the quality and safety of complementary medicines available in this country. Indeed, in Australia nutritional and herbal products are regulated as drugs, whereas comparable countries such as the United States and Britain only require such supplements to be made according to food standards. Allegations that emerged in the wake of the Pan Pharmaceuticals crisis have raised serious questions about the effectiveness of the TGA in carrying out its regulatory role—so much so that the Australian National Audit Office last week announced it would be undertaking an audit of the TGA administration of non-prescription medicines. While the government-appointed expert committee has been given a fairly wide scope to inquire into the complementary medicines industry, there is one glaring omission from the terms of reference—namely, there is no mention of Pan.

The industry is also concerned about the make-up of the expert committee. In particular, it has raised concerns that the majority of members are drawn from an academic or mainstream medical practice background, with little contribution from practitioners with experience in the field of complementary health care. Although the committee does include one naturopath and one manufacturer of natural products, there is no representative from the peak industry body. This lack of balance is particularly concerning to the industry, given that some committee members have been publicly quoted denouncing complementary medicine. In the meantime, my colleague the shadow minister for consumer protection and consumer health has raised concerns about the value of the report, given the limited time frame the committee has been afforded to conduct its inquiries and the absence of provisions to ensure proper consultation with the industry or the general public.

Complementary medicine practitioners are concerned that, if the committee recommends even greater regulation when it hands down its report later this week, it will have a significant impact on the community's confidence in natural medicines and therapies and the affordability of natural therapies and will create instability for the hundreds of workers employed in the $1.2 billion a year industry. Complementary medicines such as herbal remedies, nutritional supplements and complementary therapies, including acupuncture, naturopathy and chiropractic services, have steadily been gaining popularity in the Australian community in recent years. It is estimated that more than 60 per cent of Australians use complementary health care as an alternative to conventional treatments or act to prevent the onset of disease by changing their diet and lifestyle with the guidance of qualified complementary medical practitioners.

I am a great believer in complementary medicine and therapies. When I broke my arm earlier this year, as you know, Mr Speaker, I sought a wide range of treatments to reduce the pain I was experiencing—it is still pretty bad—and to rebuild the strength in the muscle, including several acupuncture sessions and taking Chinese herbs. As veterans affairs minister, I added chiropractic services to the health care services covered by the Commonwealth for former service men and women. The AMA has noted the growing interest in natural health care remedies to complement conventional treatments amon-gst GPs, medical specialists and hospital departments.

Complementary health care and local practices like the Centre for Integrated Med-icine have a lot to offer people in our community by giving them access to a range of alternative options to maintain good health and to treat ailments, which has long-term potential to reduce the stress on the health budget. What this important industry needs, more than an overarching review, is the support of the government to ensure that the gaps that seem to have emerged in the regulatory system are fixed and that public confidence in complementary medicines is restored.