Mistaken for medicine: How potentially misleading therapeutic claims affect patients’ perceptions of CAM products

Peter Harris1

1 School of Law, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8140, peter.harris@pg.canterbury.ac.nz

New Zealand’s complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) product regulations are among the most impotent in the developed world.  In the current healthcare environment, where patients are taking increasing responsibility for their general wellbeing, this laissez-faire regulatory stance puts the public at risk of mistaking these products for legitimate medicines.  More than half of online CAM products recently reviewed contained therapeutic claims, which are prohibited under New Zealand’s legislation.  While unsubstantiated and unregulated therapeutic claims are a simple target for enforcement measures, New Zealand’s current Dietary Supplement Regulations do not make provision for such enforcement, with any action therefore having to be taken under fair trading legislation or the Medicines Act; which happens only infrequently.

A new Bill on the horizon seeks to reform this sorely outdated legislation and allow therapeutic claims under the moniker of ‘health benefit claims’ when founded on scientific evidence or traditional evidence, relating to a named condition.  However this only addresses part of the problem with the current CAM product regulatory environment.  By permitting medicinal claims on these products, the line between stringently tested and regulated medicines and ad-hoc remedies is increasingly blurred, potentially misleading any consumer who seeks to maintain their health by self-medicating with effective products.

I will look at these misleading and deceptive claims in light of the current and proposed legislation, and subsequently consider whether these claims influence a patient into incorrectly believing a CAM product is a medicine.  I am currently undertaking empirical research to look into what effect unregulated therapeutic or medicinal claims on CAM products have upon consumer perceptions of the nature of the product, and how consumers are influenced by this marketing.  The results from this research will inform the discussion.


Peter Harris is a Master of Laws candidate at the University of Canterbury.  With a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Science majoring in Chemistry, he is combining this background in a cross-disciplinary Master’s thesis.  Peter’s thesis is looking into the regulation of complementary and alternative medicines, with an especial consideration on the role of scientific research in law making and regulatory decisions.

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