Can a medicine really be 'natural'?

Can a medicine really be 'natural'?

Can I still advertise these natural medicines?

If you’re time poor, the quick answer is probably yes provided the material isn’t misleading.

If you’ve got 5 minutes read on ….  

Many therapeutic goods are advertised as being 'natural’ or including ‘natural’ ingredients. Whether it be in an ad or the label, consumers should be able to understand and trust this claim.  If the message is not understood or is used inconsistently by industry, there is potential for the public to be misled and enliven a breach of the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code (TGAC).

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) have released formal guidance for industry and advertisers. The document explains the TGA's interpretation of the meaning of 'natural' and makes clearer how they will assess its use in advertising compliance reviews. Additionally, the TGA have broadcast that they will publish specific information for consumers on the use of 'natural' claims in coming weeks.

When a medicine is advertised as ‘natural’ the interpretation of the message is likely to vary amongst consumers, and as expected will influence purchasing decisions. Some believe ‘natural’ products to be safer, to work more in harmony with the body, to be less toxic or have a gentler mode of action. Advertising should not  in any way mislead a consumer and must present information in a balanced and accurate manner.

So what has changed? What does the guidance focus on?

Misleading advertising is in breach of the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code - things have not really changed but with the penalties for non-compliance strengthened, clarity on the TGA position very valuable.

Point #1 – Chemical form: 

Generally, a consumer would expect a medicine described as ‘natural’ to mean the product has undergone very minimal or no processing from its original form found in nature.  The TGA recognise this and in the guidance, has focussed on the processing steps involved in the transformation of the raw material to the finished good.

a.       The form must be one found in nature – e.g. from a plant or mineral source

b.       The processing must be minimal e.g. freezing or drying

c.       The finished ingredient has not become a new chemical entity following the processing 

Point #2 – ‘All-natural’: 

As far as is possible, the term ‘natural’ is consistent with the ACCC’s guidelines about the use of natural claims in relation to food advertising. A finished product that is naturally based but encapsulated by processed materials is not accurately described as "all natural" in the way a whole food such as a carrot or dried herb can be. Again, this is recognised by the TGA and guidance on this has been provided.  


Point #3 – Mixed formulations: 

If the finished good contains both 'natural' ingredients and chemical substances the term 'natural' may still be used provided it is appropriately qualified. This can be achieved for example by specifying which ingredients are natural and which are non-natural/ synthetic, or advising of a percentage of natural ingredients. This ensures the consumer is not led to believe that every ingredient in the therapeutic good is natural.


Point #4 – Safe: 

The TGAC prohibits advertising claims that suggest a therapeutic good is safe or free from side effects. Some consumers consider that 'natural' means 'safe', and again, while the term is permitted, care must be taken to ensure the natural qualities are not mistakenly associated with safety.


Point #5 – Trade names: 

A company or brand name that include 'natural' or refers to 'natural' would not necessarily lead consumers to believe that every product in the range is wholly natural, provided it is made clear which is the brand name, and what the products name is. If a product name contains the word natural, even more caution should be taken.


What do I need to do?

Advertisers need to comply with all relevant aspects of the Code, including holding evidence to substantiate all claims made in advertising – this includes any ‘natural’ claims. So even if using the term 'natural' in a way that meets the TGA's definitions, you must already hold the substantiation.

In essence, you will either have to include or provide sufficient information in the advertisement to explain the ‘natural’ claim to the consumer or use the claim strictly in accordance with the definitions set out in the TGA’s guidance.  

If you’re uncertain, have a closer look through the TGA website or contact me directly for a consultation.

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