Advertisements for the weight loss drug Xenical has come under criticism from consumer watchdog, Choice saying that it is misleading young teenage girls, preying on their fears about their bodies in a breach of advertising guidelines.
The ads have been screened during the high-rating Australian Idol program whose major audiences include 13- to 17-year-olds and have reportedly driven teens as young as 13 and of average weight to seek out the drugs from pharmacies.
Choice said that the ads breached the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code Council's guidelines prohibiting drug advertising that are directed at people under 18. It has set the call for the withdrawal of the campaign.
Pharmacists have reported increased demands from customers of average weight during the two weeks since the drug has been directly advertised.
One pharmacist on an industry email list wrote, 'Am I the only one who's noticed a sudden incidence, since the branded advertising started, of people requesting Xenical who have a [body mass index] of 25 or less?'.
"These [mainly female] patients look like they have a healthy weight, yet they're all telling me they want to lose another 5 to 10 kilograms."
Another pharmacist wrote: "I think we are going to be spending a lot of our time sorting out the few people for whom Xenical might be useful from the many who decide they want it, following promotion direct to consumer."
However some others have considered that it would do no harm to provide the drug to those with a healthy weight, in spite of its known side effects such as diarrhea and incontinence.
Viola Korczak, the health policy officer at Choice said that the safety and efficacy of Xenical for children had not been established, adding, "Our concern is that parents may not even know that their children are taking these drugs."
Channel Ten markets Australian Idol as the place for advertisers to reach the youth and says the program is able to capture more than 50 per cent of the 16- to 39-year-old audience. Of the 1.48 million people who tuned in on Monday, 320,000 were under 16.
A Ten spokeswoman reported that Xenical was not an Idol sponsor. It was reported to have had booked a small number of ads around the program but had no more planned. She said that the drug's manufacturer, Roche Products, had "cleared all the requisite hurdles" but that "Channel Ten is not in a position to second-guess the rulings of independent regulatory bodies".
David Henry, a professor of clinical pharmacology at the University of Newcastle said that placing the drug ad in the Australian Idol timeslot had everything to do with appearance and very little to do with health.
The complaint is to go before the council on October 19.
If Roche is found to be in breach of the code, it could be forced to withdraw the ad although it would not be fined.
The company has denied marketing Xenical to adolescents, saying the advertising was aimed at an older audience.