Covid vaccine incentives: Australian doctors now allowed to offer cash, prizes and alternative medicines | Health

Covid vaccine incentives: Australian doctors now allowed to offer cash, prizes and alternative medicines | Health

Doctors, pharmacists and workplaces can now incentivise people to receive the Covid-19 vaccine by offering rewards including cash, prizes and complementary and alternative medicines, in a move a professor of public health and expert on drugs regulation, Prof Ken Harvey, has described as “utter craziness”.

Since Covid-19 vaccines became available in Australia from February, some doctors have expressed frustration that strict rules around the promotion and advertising of medicines enforced by drugs regulator the Therapeutic Goods Administration has meant they could not promote the vaccines as freely as they would have liked, including directly to patients during consults, or on social media.

The regulations are important because they prevent drugs companies and health professionals from making exaggerated claims about medicines and medical devices, and stop drug companies from advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers including through television, radio and social media.

But the regulations have also made vaccine promotion difficult during the pandemic.

In response, the TGA amended the rules, though only for the promotion of Covid-19 vaccines. While health professionals, corporate entities and media outlets can now communicate information publicly about TGA-approved Covid-19 vaccines, this information must be consistent with current commonwealth health messaging. Any promotion must not reference brand names such as Pfizer or AstraZeneca or any active ingredients that might identify the vaccines.

The rules do not allow any statements saying vaccines do not cause harm, or any false or misleading information.

But the changes do allow health professionals, corporate entities and media outlets to offer cash or other rewards to people who have been fully vaccinated. Rewards must not include alcohol, tobacco or medicines, however, listed medicines are allowed.

Listed medicines are those that don’t require regulatory categorisation into pharmacy-only or prescription-only substances, and are available widely including in pharmacists but also in supermarkets. Listed products are mostly complementary and alternative products such as vitamins, minerals and homeopathic treatments, unproven to have any medical benefit.

“Complementary medicines immune boosters are going gangbusters at the moment due to the pandemic,” Harvey said. Unless people have a specific vitamin deficiency, “they don’t work”, he said.

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“They don’t boost your immunity, but they’re a wonderful money-earner for pharmaceutical and vitamin companies. So why the hell would the TGA allow listed medicines to be offered as rewards? It is just craziness from the TGA.

“Yes, they were clearly coming down too hard on doctors supporting and recommending Covid-19 vaccinations. But you can change the rules for Covid to allow promotion of vaccines without resorting to allowing unproven treatments to be offered.

“Listed medicines have no pre-market evaluation and they are virtually all complementary medicines. My concern is the industries like naturopathy and homeopathy will benefit, and you’ll see pharmacists giving free samples of these products alongside the vaccinations to try to entice customers back.”

The TGA rule changes will remain in effect until December 2022.

Advertising and public health communication experts have previously called for rewards to be offered to boost vaccination rates following concerns that vaccine hesitancy and lacklustre government advertising were leading to complacency about getting vaccinated.

Such rewards are being offered around the world including in the US, where Washington state is distributing marijuana to the vaccinated in a ‘Joints for Jabs’ program, while Ohio has seen vaccination rates surge after offering entry into a US$1m lottery.

But Harvey said he was disappointed rewards were needed to entice people to do something in the interest of their own and the public’s health.

“It’s true the Australian government has been so bad at communicating about vaccines,” Harvey said. “But surely that it’s good for you and it’s of public benefit is enough without needing to offer gifts and gimmicks.”

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