Ken Harvey quits over Swisse-La Trobe deal rejected by other unis

Dr Ken HarveyUPDATE: The proposed deal between Swisse Wellness and La Trobe University that led ‘serial campaigner’ Dr Ken Harvey to resign his position as Adjunct Associate Professor in the University’s School of Public Health has apparently run the gamut of several universities over a lengthy period of time before finally being taken up by La Trobe.

Bond University on the Queensland Gold Cost was approached about a possible venture in September 2012 before the university rejected it. At least two other universities were also approached and the offer rejected.

Harvey’s decision has been supported by academics around Australia, as well as by the Friends of Science in Medicine and the Consumers Health Forum of Australia organisations.

Mark Metherell, a spokesman for the Consumers Health Forum, said that La Trobe, in describing Swisse as “Victoria’s leading global wellness company”, “appears to have fallen for the company’s celebrity-backed marketing pitch. Such a statement exposes the university as credulous and naïve.”

At La Trobe, Swisse will contribute $15 million to the university over six years as a founding partner of a Complementary Medicine Evidence Centre (CMEC). Professor Keith Nugent, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) for La Trobe, said in an announcement late in January that “once the CMEC is established, Swisse will continue to have its products undergo rigorous and independent, scientific assessment”.

Harvey, however, has cast doubt on the company’s commitment to such assessment.

“Swisse is well known for prioritising the marketing of its products (especially by the use of celebrities) over their scientific assessment,” he told the university’s vice-chancellor, Prof John Dewar, in his letter of resignation. “Indeed, many of the claims Swisse have made about their products have been judged to have breached the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code by the independent Complaint Resolution Panel (CRP).”

Harvey said that “Many advertisements claimed that Swisse products were ‘proven’, ‘clinically proven’, ‘proven results’, ‘scientifically shown’, ‘clinically tested with proven results’, ‘proven in clinical trials’.

However, the CRP “noted that most of the studies Swisse used to support these claims were weak in that they were conducted on a small number of patients in narrowly defined groups, such as elderly men, that are not representative of the general adult population to whom the Panel considered the television advertisements were addressed. None of the eight studies cited supported representations that Swisse products were clinically proven to improve stamina, energy, general health and well-being or relieve fatigue, tiredness or stress in the general adult population.

“I certainly support more research into the efficacy of complementary medicines,” Harvey said in his letter, “but, in my view, it is crucial that the design, assessment and funding of such research be at arm’s length from a particular company and overseen by an independent body such as the ARC and/or NHMRC.”

He pointed out that industry-sponsored research were more likely to report positive outcomes than were trials funded by other sources. “In addition, contract research for industry can be specifically designed to provide a particular result. For example, performing a battery of 60 or more tests of mental functioning while administering a multi-vitamin preparation is likely to find that one or two tests will show statistical significance due to random chance.”

He suggested that “One appropriate mechanism for industry to assist such research would be for several companies to partner with one or more universities in an ARC Linkage grant submission”.

“I am concerned that the partnership of La Trobe University with Swisse Wellness Pty Ltd involves a fundamental conflict of interest both for the proposed CMEC and the staff involved. In addition, I am concerned this arrangement will impact on the reputation of the University given the track record of Swisse.”

He added that a number of his colleagues had raised questions about the appropriateness of his ongoing association with La Trobe University given the arrangement with Swisse.

“Taking all the above into account, I hereby confirm my resignation as Adjunct Associate Professor.”

Harvey is well-known to Skeptics for his ongoing battle both through and with the Therapeutic Goods Administration over claims made by alt med companies in their advertising and promotional material. His complaints have all been upheld upon investigation.

In particular, he is known for his fight against the SensaSlim company for its claimed weightloss product. SensaSlim notoriously sued Harvey in what is generally regarded as a SLAPP suit designed to keep him quiet. Harvey fought back, with financial assistance from the Skeptical community via a fundraising effort initiated by Australian Skeptics. He won the case but, despite a court ruling, his costs have not been recovered from SensaSlim.

Ken Harvey was the winner of Australian Skeptics’ Thornett Award in 2011, and was made a Life Member of Australian Skeptics in November 2013.