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Amid serious concerns about its products’ efficacy, complementary medicine giant Swisse will do anything for credibility. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Inside Swisse and its vexed ABC sponsorship deal

Nicole Kidman appearing in an advertising campaign for Swisse.
Credit: YOUTUBE

You’ve probably never heard of the place, a remote, rocky and brutally frigid town in the north-west of Greenland. Uummannaq sits 600 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, where, in the shadow of the stark Uummannaq mountain, the town’s small population fish and work the large marble quarry. Brightly coloured, salt-dusted shacks bloom on the rocks. 

You’ve probably never heard of Uummannaq but you have no doubt heard the dubious wisdom that originated here. It was from this town of some 1200 Inuit that a medical legend was born: the “Eskimo diet” and the cardiovascular benefits of fish oil. Today, the legend remains one of the most profitable staples of complementary medicine. But its scientific founding is as rocky as the terrain. 

In the 1970s, two Danish nutritionists visited Uummannaq to conduct field research among the Inuit population. They took blood samples and examined the local diet – principally fish, seal and whale blubber – and found the typical Inuit had lower cholesterol than their Danish counterpart. They then examined death certificates, and arrived at their resonant conclusion: the Inuit diet was responsible for drastically lower rates of heart disease. They published their findings in a medical journal in 1971, and its effects are still felt today in the multibillion-dollar industry given to the harvesting, extraction and marketing of fish oil. 

But there was a major problem with their methodology: they never tested for heart disease. Instead, they relied upon the chief medical officer’s reports, which, in a country whose population was remotely scattered, were neither accurate nor comprehensive. Some 30 per cent of Greenland’s population at the time lived in areas without a medical examiner. The scientific consensus today is that the researchers underestimated the local rates of heart disease, and almost 50 years after their research was published, the proclaimed benefits of fish oil – which have expanded well beyond heart health – remain far from established. But belief in the “Eskimo diet” has been so popularly stubborn it has now hardened into putative fact. And today, emulation of the Inuit regimen is sold not just as a diet but a pill. 

Starting small

About the same time as those two Danes were in Greenland, a Melbourne baker travelled to Switzerland on holiday and encountered pollen capsules. Kevin Ring saw either benefit or profit, perhaps both, and returned with a sufficient supply to sell them from his bakery. Soon he was selling more pills than loaves, and he established the small business Suisse. He sensed a burgeoning interest in complementary medicine and, almost half a century later, there remains a sufficient number of people who distrust modernity enough to transform complementary medicines into staggeringly profitable enterprises. 

Today, Swisse – the company changed its name for legal reasons – markets itself so aggressively that it appears almost ubiquitous. They have courted the endorsements of athletes, models and film stars, and manufactured a pretentious glamour around their products. Ricky Ponting, Lleyton Hewitt, Nicole Kidman and Ellen DeGeneres are all ambassadors. In 2012, the company that began by selling pollen tablets in a St Kilda bakery was spending $50 million a year on marketing. It is a figure vastly greater than the cost of its products’ ingredients – herbs, oils, plant extracts. Last year, Swisse sold for $1.7 billion to Hong Kong group Biostime. Despite the sale, Swisse’s corporate headquarters remained in Melbourne. 

It’s a story of extraordinary growth, from small suburban business to multinational, and it’s a story the company itself loves to tell. But an air of dubiousness hovers above the so-called wellness industry, and when it was announced last week that Swisse was a new sponsor of the ABC’s international service, not everyone was happy. Critics included staff at the ABC and another sponsor, Monash University, who felt damned by association. “It was bloody depressing,” says Ken Harvey, an adjunct associate professor of public health policy at Monash University. “I was embarrassed, and my colleagues were embarrassed. The new ABC CEO has a business background, and perhaps she might not have thought there was anything wrong with it, but I’ve worked in the Asian region and I can tell you that they don’t need vitamins and crap – they need public health interventions.

“All of the logos [of the ABC sponsors] were together. So there’s a perceived issue. Monash administration tells me it was fine, but it is not. You’ve got this crazy juxtaposition where you have Swisse articles next to good academic articles on nutrition.” 

Craig Reucassel, a presenter on ABC’s consumer affairs program The Checkout, told me that “editorial independence is extremely important. One of the reasons we can do The Checkout is because we’re independent of commercial interests”.

In 2013, Reucassel presented a segment on the show that lampooned complementary medicine and the body designed to regulate them, the Therapeutic Goods Administration or TGA. Swisse’s appetite suppressant came under special scrutiny, as did the National Institute of Integrative Medicine – a research centre founded by Avni Sali, the father of Swisse CEO Radek Sali. The program demonstrated how, after their product’s claims were judged to be unfounded by the TGA, they merely repackaged the same product and put it back on the market. Swisse’s own correspondence with retailers confirmed it. 

Avni Sali sued Reucassel and the episode’s two producers – Julian Morrow and Nick Murray – for defamation, claiming the program had “severely injured his reputation and standing”. Eventually, though, legal proceedings were abandoned. Reucassel tells me he was confident they had done nothing wrong and in an episode of the program this week, Morrow expressed his displeasure at the sponsorship deal. “If you’ve sensed a slight sense of unwellness this week, maybe even nausea, it might be because of the news that ABC is partnering with Swisse, who’ll receive exclusive branding and advertising opportunities on ABC international platforms,” Morrow said in a piece to camera. “Now, some are worried about this. But the ABC says that partnering with the brand behind some products that are ridiculously overpriced and made from ingredients that there’s no convincing, independent evidence for won’t damage the ABC’s editorial integrity. And we’re sure they’re right – we are sure they’re right, aren’t we?” 

Courting celebrity

Swisse’s chief marketer knew what he wanted: celebrities. When he emerged from the toilet he had a quick question for his staff. “Who’s an Aussie celebrity in Hollywood who looks healthy?” He answered it himself. “Get me Isla Fisher’s agent.” 

Swisse couldn’t get Fisher, but they secured Nicole Kidman. The actress would later appear in a commercial dancing uninhibitedly through a lush garden, her white dress trailing behind her. Her curious vitality was, we were led to believe, the result of her ingesting Swisse pills.  

But for one former employee, it was another reason to be sceptical. “Everyone was always smiling. Cadel Evans would come into the office one day,” he told me. It was exciting until you knew it was all fake. It was a miniature version of Wolf of Wall Street

“There was an obsession with celebrity ambassadors. I guess right from the beginning I felt ridiculous [working there]. It was one big PR campaign. Marketing always came first – the science was an afterthought.”

The former employee’s job was to find supporting evidence for various products’ health claims. Essentially, his job was to trawl the internet for research that could be construed as supportive. Remarkably, the former employee tells me, Swisse did “not pay one cent” for academic research, instead relying on his access, as a former student, to a university’s online database of scholarly articles. The employee would then populate a spreadsheet – a “table of evidence” – with what he found. “The labels were already made,” he tells me. “Then I’d go off and try to find some science that supported it. It was backwards. The health claims came first, then we’d find some evidence. A good example was the appetite suppressant, which came from a cactus extract. The only data we had came from African tribesmen and tribal Indians. But we used it. Another problem was that you’d see the same names kept coming up [in studies]. They were often tied to the industry. One of the other problems with the tables of evidence was that a lot of data came from China and India, and they weren’t as rigorous as I’d like [them] to be.”

None of which is a surprise to Harvey. “Swisse are consummate bullshit artists,” he tells me. “The complementary medicines industry lie. And they prey upon vulnerable people. Overweight? There’s fat blaster. Declining sexual prowess? Try horny goat weed. Too stressed to eat properly? Take these vitamins. And it pisses me off. There’s no evidence for most of it. It’s just hype and exploitation. 

“Now, the TGA’s idea of harm is someone dying. Fair enough. Their line on this stuff is that it’s relatively safe. But harm comes in different forms. There’s indirect harm here, in that it delays consumers from seeking evidence-based therapies. And what’s more, it rips people off.” 

The rise of krill oil

They’re pink, opaque and no longer than your little finger, but formed in sufficiently large schools you can see them from space. Krill are crustaceans, and measured by collective mass may be the most abundant species on the planet. Which is perfect for the complementary medicine industry. In the Antarctic waters, where the greatest numbers of krill dwell, there is a new kind of gold rush. 

In the late 1990s, an American oceanographer discovered that the Antarctic krill’s omega-3 fatty acids were easily absorbed by the human body. In 2002 he established Neptune Technologies and Bioressources, a company that harvested, extracted and sold krill oil. Quickly, it became one of the highest-selling supplements in the world – the logical extension of the Danish Inuit research were giant fishing trawlers harvesting the Antarctic waters. 

In a 2001 document, Neptune wrote that it hoped to establish that krill oil could reduce arthritic inflammation, serve as a sunscreen and prevent face wrinkles. This was in addition to its hope that krill oil would help lower cholesterol. But 15 years later, the science is still dubious. Earlier this year, The New York Times partnered with the PBS series Frontline to investigate the world of complementary medicine. It took special interest in fish oils and found that a majority of clinical studies found no evidence that fish oil helped prevent heart disease. 

When I raise krill oil with Harvey, he laughs deeply. “The public gets the message that there’s a pill for every ill,” he tells me. “They ignore that eating well is vital. So there’s good epidemiological research that suggests that eating fish is good for you over fish supplements. But we haven’t got that message out there. And the message is: keep a good diet and exercise regularly, and this will help prevent heart disease and cancer.” 

Harvey has almost as much scorn for the TGA as the industry it’s meant to regulate. It’s easy to see why. In Australia, the TGA this year reported a staggering 80 per cent of surveyed complementary and over-the-counter medicines were found to be noncompliant – that is, in breach of the TGA’s codes. The majority of these breaches involved labelling, advertising and exaggerated claims of evidence. As it is, the industry-funded TGA is poorly empowered to impose penalties and sometimes the cost of legal action eclipses the paltry fine they might extract. “There are huge levels of noncompliance with regulatory requirements,” Harvey tells me. “And you’ll never hear that from the industry. Companies thumb their noses at the regulations because there are no penalties. All this has come up in numerous reports over the past 15 years. It’s a scandal, but nothing is done.”

One such report was the Sansom review, officially called the Expert Review of Medicines and Medical Devices Regulation, which delivered its final report to the government last July. In its stage two report, which focused on the regulation of complementary medicines, the report authors made 26 recommendations. But the report has scarcely been mentioned by the government since. Neither the health department nor the office of the health minister responded to my questions. 

‘It began to feel “culty” ’

For the former Swisse employee, there was great excitement upon starting at the company. There was what the chief executive called an “H and H” culture – health and happiness – promoted by the provision of a gym, personal trainers and free organic lunches. Staff were given rest and recuperation days, and encouraged to lead positive lifestyles. It seemed as if everyone was smiling all the time. “But it began to feel ‘culty’,” he says. “It reminded me of a pyramid scheme.”  

For all of the good vibes, the salads and the treadmills, the fact remains that Swisse and other supplement companies are selling grossly expensive products with dubious benefits. It is for this reason that many inside the ABC – and public health experts such as Ken Harvey – are wondering if Swisse sponsorship undermines perceptions of the broadcaster’s independence or integrity.

Swisse have assiduously partnered with the glamorous or successful, or with respected institutions. Their partnership with the ABC, say critics, is another example of the company borrowing respectability. As the defamation suit against The Checkout showed, it’s a respectability they will protect in court if need be. The reason for this sensitivity is simple: the company’s entire business model rests on what they can persuade people is waiting in their little white bottles. At time of press, Swisse had not responded to requests for comment.

“It’s human failing to want quick fixes,” Ken Harvey tells me, “and there have always been charlatans to take advantage of that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 3, 2016 as "Inside Swisse and its vexed ABC deal". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.