Consumers are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on vitamins that may be harmful
CONNED by celebrity-driven spin, the “worried well” are literally flushing away hundreds of millions of dollars a year on vitamins that do no good and may even be harmful.
Spending on supplements has grown at 11 per cent annually over the past five years as brands such as Swisse and Blackmores reap the benefits of heavy investment in celebrity-led marketing campaigns featuring the likes of actress Nicole Kidman and model Rachael Finch.
Industry research firm Ibisword estimates this financial year, Australians will spend $1.85 billion on vitamins.
The Federal Government says there is no evidence most Australians get any benefit from taking supplements.
Analysis by News Corp Australia finds Tasmanians fork out the most on vitamins and supplements — about $110 a person annually; Northern Territorians spend the least, at $32 per capita.
NSW residents outlay about $82 each, Victorians $79, Queenslanders $75 and South Australians, $83.
Western Australians hand over $66 while ACT residents spend $44 a year.
Victorians’ spending is estimated to be rising fastest, followed by NSW consumers’.
There is only one place in the country where people are spending less on supplements than they used to — Canberra. They may be on to something.
“Unless you have a medically diagnosed deficiency and have been advised by a qualified medical doctor to take a pharmaceutical grade supplement, then you are likely wasting your money,” said Macquarie University Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences honorary research fellow Dr Rachael Dunlop.
“While most supplements will do no more than create expensive urine, some can actually cause harm.”
Dr Dunlop said a recent University of Adelaide study that found many approved supplements contained ingredients not listed on the label, including heavy metals, pharmaceutical drugs and “bizarre toxins like toad venom”.
“Supplements like these can cause direct harm as well as interacting with other medications people might be taking, to have serious side effects,” she said.
The Victorian government’s Better Health website says “taking large doses of vitamins can be harmful because your body only needs vitamins in very tiny amounts” and that “people who may need vitamin supplements include pregnant and breastfeeding women, people who consume alcohol in amounts over the recommended level, drug users and the elderly”.
The Federal Government’s Health Direct site says “importantly, there is no evidence that supplements of vitamins and minerals make any difference to the health of most people”.
Ibisworld forecasts Australians’ spending on vitamins and supplements will top $2 billion by 2019-20, up from $1.3 billion in 2008-09.
The market segment that includes stress relief, sexual health and the promotion of greater brain activity is growing fastest, said senior Ibisworld analyst Alen Allday.
“Careful and consistent marketing through celebrities and famous sportspeople has reinforced the concept that additional, and often costly, vitamins and supplements are important for a healthy lifestyle,” Mr Allday said.
“This marketing strategy has proven highly successful for the industry.”
Sharemarket-listed Blackmores spent $49 million on “selling and marketing” in 2015-16; Swisse, which is a private company, spent $31 million on “marketing and advertising” in 2013-14, the most recent year for which figures are lodged with the corporate regulator.
Vitamin industry lobby group Complementary Medicines Australia CEO Carl Gibson said it was “absolute rubbish” to say supplements were a waste of money.
They played an important part in the “wellness” of consumers, he said.
Mr Gibson noted the University of Western Sydney’s National Institute of Complementary Medicines had found that about 90 per cent of GPs and almost all community pharmacists had recommended at least one complementary medicine in the past year.
The NICM is partly funded by vitamin makers.
Mr Gibson said only seven per cent of people get enough vegetables, meaning an overwhelming majority of the public would benefit from taking a multivitamin.
The top six vitamins you shouldn’t take
1. Vitamin C: It won’t cure a cold and megadoses can increase risk of kidney stones
2. Vitamin A and beta carotene: Rather than reducing the chance of getting cancer, it has been found to raise the likelihood among smokers
3. Vitamin E: Another supposed anti-cancer supplement, but it has been shown to elevate it
4. Vitamin B6: Can cause nerve damage if taken for an extended period
5. Multi-vitamins: A study of 39,000 older women found they increased death risk
6. Vitamin D: Waste of money. Ten minutes of sunlight will do the job