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Chemist Warehouse are happy to sell you products that might not work

November 14, 2010
Prescription placebos used in research and pra...

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Fellow Victorian skeptic Chris Higgins recently wrote to Chemist Warehouse asking them why they knowingly and wilfully sell useless products, for which there is no supporting evidence, to their unsuspecting clientele. Chris quite rightly questioned their ethics, given the trust most Australians place in their industry, which is seen as well educated and highly moral, acting in our best interests in dispensing medical advice.

Why is a leading pharmacy, an organisation who the general public rely on for medical advice, selling useless “power” bracelets? Ear candles? Homeopathy? There is no evidence for the efficacy of any of these products. Furthermore, legitimate scientific studies have shown time and time again that they do not work at all! Still, Chemist Warehouse continues to line their shelves with these products, which can only be described as snake oil and magic water.

Chris Higgins, A Letter to Chemist Warehouse

Whilst I take no issue with a retail business’ decision to sell legal products for which there is a market, Chemist Warehouse, and indeed any pharmacy which sells prescription science-based medicine, has an ethical responsibility to fully disclose all pertinent information about any health products it sells, including any side-effects, or indeed the complete lack of evidence for the product’s efficacy.

Chris goes on to say;

The Australian general public relies on stores such as Chemist Warehouse to provide them with honest and reliable information regarding their families health and well being. Your decision to stock these products legitimises them in the eyes of your customers, when they should be being offered real medicine. I strongly urge you to reconsider selling such rubbish, and to return to only stocking legitimate, scientifically proven products.

As Chris points out, beyond the issue of efficacy and full disclosure, the greater issue here is that customers with real health problems may be steered towards non-efficacious products in lieu of real, evidence-based treatments or medicines to the detriment of their health. In the eyes of many, a product sharing shelf-space with known and trusted medicines gains legitimacy to which it may not be entitled, and advice from untrained yet well-meaning sales staff magnifies this further.

After a follow-up letter, Chemist Warehouse responded to Chris with the following:

Whilst we appreciate your point of view regarding holistic/homeopathic products in dismissing them as placebos, the Australia public has a wide and varied belief in all things such as religion and medicine. We believe that if even one person can be alleviated of their pain or symptoms from the use of any of these alternative products, albeit as a placebo effect, then we are doing a community service.

Chemist Warehouse, in response to Chris Higgins’ A Letter to Chemist Warehouse

So just to be clear – Chemist Warehouse, who by their very name trade upon the trust placed in the Pharmaceutical industry and Chemists in particular, make merchandising decisions based at least partly upon the belief systems of their customers. Furthermore they are satisfied to take your money and tell you a useless piece of silicone plastic fashioned into a bracelet with a hologram on it, or a sugar pill with a fancy label on its bottle has a real effect, when in reality at most it may be of some benefit to someone somewhere through the placebo effect.

Partly inspired by Chris’ letter, Richard Saunders of the Australian Skeptics has now challenged Chemist Warehouse to justify their decision to sell the ‘HOTBAND®’ product, which is of particular interest to Richard in his long-term war on similar useless trinkets which all seem to share a rather hefty price-tag. These wrist-bands are marketed as legal and completely side-effect free performance-enhancers, apparently empowering the wearer with improved balance through some mystical interaction with the body’s natural frequencies, whatever that means. In reality these are another expensive placebo, sold by Chemist Warehouse under their ‘we hope it helps someone somewhere’ merchandising policy.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in purchasing one of these body-frequency type bands, save some coin and buy a ‘Placebo Band‘ from SkepticBros instead – they are just as effective as the leading brands (i.e. they are completely ineffective), but at only A$2, they’re a bargain.

I think the lesson here is clear – retailers such as Chemist Warehouse are not dispensers of medical advice, and should be regarded with the same level of trust as any other merchant – they exist only to separate you from your money. If you want medical advise, you really need to see a doctor.

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From → Science, Skepticism

17 Comments
  1. Philip permalink

    By the same standard, perhaps you should vet the advertisers you accept via Google Ads and not accept items like “Craniosacral Training” by BodyIntelligence? 🙂

  2. Hi Philip. I’d love to, but this site is hosted on WordPress.com who reserve the right to display Google ads to support their business model.

    One of these days I’ll get around to migrating this blog off to a private web server…

  3. Renee permalink

    I must admit, I am offended by the term ‘untrained sales staff’. While this almost certainly applies to the staff of Chemist Warehouse, it does not apply to all pharmacies. A distinction must be made between stores like Chemist Warehouse and proper pharmacies.

    I personally am a Pharmacy Assistant Grade 3 (and have a Cert 3 in Community Pharmacy). My employer requires all staff to undergo Cert 3 training, with Cert 4 as a follow-up option. Properly trained Pharmacy Assistants are extremely knowledgeable in the products they sell. I doubt Chemist Warehouse staff are given this title (beyond Grade 1 [untrained]), as it requires extensive training and product knowledge, which are not required for their role.

    To tell the difference, pick a pharmacy. Stand in one section for 5 minutes looking confused. In Chemist Warehouse and some others of its ilk, you will be allowed to stand there until closing, as the assistants can only help you find a product, not provide assistance. In good pharmacies, the assistants will be able to make recommendations and give more information about the products. Many of Chemist Warehouse’s customers are just there for the prices, so lack of advice is not a problem for them.

    This, however, is the problem: about 65% of customers are not interested in advice. Their cousin/aunt/workmate said that XYZ is great, and they want it. Or worse, they saw it on Today Tonight. I am happy to tell these people the truth, but to them, I am a lowly retail worker. What would I know? (aside from that Glucosamine creams have zero efficacy, St John’s Wort has no evidence of working on anxiety but does have side-effects, anything on Today Tonight is probably worthless). Most people do not ask the opinion of the staff, and it can be difficult to provide one when it is not welcome.

    Normal pharmacy assistants are trained in the questioning protocols required by the Quality Care Pharmacy Program. That’s why if you ask for Nurofen Plus they’ll ask you about 4 questions. They can then relay that information to the pharmacists, who can then decide whether or not to supply the product. if you refuse to answer, or are generally a boor (as many are), you’ll have to wait for the pharmacist to be free to ask you those same questions. It saves everyone time if people treat the assistants as intelligent people, not nosy checkout-chicks.

    If you ask about St John’s Wort, there’s no legal requirement to ask these questions, but properly trained assistants do, as the herb is at best ineffective and at worst dangerous to your health. Diligent assistants care more about the customer’s health than the bottom line, but the sad fact remains that your average customer doesn’t care what the assistant thinks, and has already made up their mind to buy the stupid placebo.

    • Renee, thank you for taking the time to share this information. I am very happy to hear that many chemists / pharmacies take their customer’s health seriously enough to employ properly trained staff who have an understanding of efficacy, and evidence-based medicine. I have encountered such staff at National Pharmacies for example, and this is why I’m happy to give them my business.

      This particular story relates specifically to Chemist Warehouse and their apparently un-trained, or possibly just under-trained sales staff. It was not my intention to malign or offend trained pharmacy assistants, so please accept my apologies if my comments caused offense.

      Once again, thank you for shedding some light on your vocation for the benefit of all.

    • Amanda permalink

      You cannot just generalize! Sorry but, I dont believe your Pharmacy is anything better than a Chemist Warehouse

    • Molly permalink

      Hi Renee, I am a level 2 pharmacy assistant, and I currently work part-time at Chemist Warehouse. As part of my training I am required to complete the Certificate III in Community Pharmacy, which Chemist Warehouse facilitates and pays all our fees. I have, in fact, just completed mine, and I have been paid an additional $500 bonus. Also, we are very highly trained in customer service, and have monthly product information sessions, which are also compulsory. Bad service can exist in any retail setting, and in the case of our store, it is not tolerated. I will say, however, that when I have gone above and beyond for some customers that they are genuinely shocked. I think because of the name and reputation for bargains, that this affects peoples assumptions and expectations negatively.

      I also don’t see the problem with providing holistic health care. People need to make informed decisions regarding their health, and I for one will certainly not make false promises to my customers. In regards to ear candles, as mentioned above, I’ve never sold them to a person who came in asking for advice for their ears, and who requested recommended products to treat any ear problems. It is certainly not taught to us to recommend such products, and trust me, we do a LOT of homework. Not to mention, we have fully qualified pharmacists working constantly, and if in doubt, we are to seek their advice on behalf of our customer.

      I do think there are a lot of generalisations being flung about here. Perhaps you should spend a few moments within a Chemist Warehouse store, and even ask a few questions. Not only will you find experts such as pharmacists, but staff highly knowledgeable in regards to vitamins, hair care, protein powders/supplements, make-up/beauty products, fragrance, and the list goes on.

  4. Michieux permalink

    Unfortunately, I think it might be impossible to find an Australian pharmacy that doesn’t sell some form of snake oil or other hokum. Tells us a lot about the ethics of these businesses.

  5. Hayley permalink

    In regards to the comment about ‘untrained staff’ at Chemist Warehouse, Renee stated that ‘this almost certainly applies to the staff of Chemist Warehouse’ – almost certainly? sorry but, how would she know?

    Chemist Warehouse is just like any other Pharmacy, whats the problem here?

  6. worker permalink

    hi guys, i have worked in chemist warehouse for nearly 2 years now. and i am about to complete my cert 3 in pharmacy. i did work in another chemist before this and it is true, chemist warehouse is not as “professional” as other chemists so to speak. it feels and looks more like a supermarket. but when i am at work i make sure i am asking all my customers the right questions and giving them the right products for thier needs. im not sure about other chemist warehouses, but the people at the store i work at are all trained, or are in training.

  7. anna permalink

    Do not buy prescription medicines in Chemist Warehouse because they re-used the old medicines that people brought to them to dispose away and sell back to you. That is why they are so rich but disgusting.

    • Worker permalink

      If u don’t know, please don’t make assumptions like that. For your information, no pharmacy is allowed to resell any medication of any kind returned by customers for any reason. It is against the law.

    • Molly permalink

      Anna – if that is so, why do we (I am a Chemist Warehouse staff member) always have full bins (bright yellow, marked as hazardous, and made especially for unused/to be disposed of medicines) of medicines that we send to be destroyed? What an awful assumption you are making, and a highly illegal one at that.

  8. DL141 permalink

    When the pharmacy you are working in is closed down Renee you may be out of a job as I am sure it will be a Chemist Warehouse that will close it down.
    Long Live Chemist Warehouse, as they are a Pharmacy that provides the cheapest price with fantastic advice as Worker has mentioned.
    As a consumer I have been very pleased with the service and advice I get every time I visit.
    Saving people money can’t be such a bad thing, Can it???

  9. pharmacist permalink

    This is a very bias and ill-formed article and string of replies.
    I am a pharmacist who has worked for chemist warehouse during my first year out and have since worked for a few other pharmacies. In response to the article, ear candles and other products that lack evidence are sold in ALL pharmacies, no pharmacy is strictly dispensary only. Go to any priceline, terry white or independent pharmacy and you will see nail polish, cosmetics, and a range of herbs and potions that have no solid evidence base for their sales. Chemist warehouse simply has a larger variety because they have the buying power and space to offer more products.

    All chemist warehouses are QCPP accredited meaning they adhere to the same high standard of health care delivery as any other pharmacy in Australia no pharmacy I have ever heard of reuses any medications nor sells expired items. This would be illegal and result in serious consequences for a pharmacist .

    I was only at the chemist warehouse store for a year but all of the assistants were undergoing their cert 3 training. The pharmacists themselves are always there to help customers in all aspects. I would often get asked about hairdye or skin creams and working at chemist warehouse has made me familar with so many different herbal products that patients come in and request.

    There is a reason chemist warehouse is one of the largest growing pharmacy chains in Australia at the moment. Sure they model their business as a discount type store, but this does not compromise the pharmacy service.

    • Hi Pharmacist, thank you for your response.

      I’d like to address a few of your comments.

      This is a very bias (sic) and ill-formed (sic) article and string of replies.

      How exactly is it ill-informed? Are any of the claims I made incorrect? Does Chemist Warehouse not sell these ineffective, unproven and in some cases disproven products? I’ll gladly retract if you can cite exactly where I’m wrong. I will agree with your charge of bias though – I’m very biased toward evidence-based treatments, and subsequently against faith-based treatments, which offer no credible evidence for efficacy. I say ‘faith-based treatments’, as the consumer is expected to “trust us – would we lie?” in lieu of actual evidence they can assume had been provided. Many of these products, as you would know, display their ‘Aust-L’ numbers, which consumers take to mean “It’s a licensed medication, therefore it must have been checked by the TGA or some other regulatory body”. They don’t know that the application for an AUST-L number is simply an online process involving no confirmation of efficacy.

      All chemist warehouses are QCPP accredited meaning they adhere to the same high standard of health care delivery as any other pharmacy in Australia

      You are quite correct – Chemist Warehouse are no more guilty here than ALL Australian Pharmacies / Chemists which wilfully peddle snake-oil to consumers with the hand-waving excuse “We’re just meeting market demand!”. Not good enough. The public hold Pharmacists to a higher level of trust and expectation as ‘Health Professionals’, than they do mere shop-assistants. Pharmacists lay claim to the respectability of their profession and the medical fraternity in general, but then provide a channel to market for these dodgy products by lending their credibility to their efficacy.

      Sure they model their business as a discount type store, but this does not compromise the pharmacy service.

      Again, this comes down to perspective I guess. If you compare Chemist Warehouse to other pharmacies which sell unproven treatments alongside evidence-based medicine, thus extending the respectability and trust of the scientific community to these shonky treatments, then yes, sure – Chemist Warehouse are just as good (bad), as they are. It’s a shame Pharmacists have allowed their once respectable and trustworthy profession to be prostituted in this way, rather than standing up together to say “this isn’t right – we don’t support this”.

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