Public health

$10 million fine for peptide clinic that used sham doctor consultations

An online company that marketed prescription peptide products for tanning, bodybuilding and anti-ageing purposes has been fined $10 million in a court case brought by the TGA.

The Federal Court ordered the Sydney-based Peptide Clinics Australia  – now in liquidation – to pay the fine for breaches of rules for advertising of medicines to the public.

The company had operated a website that offered products such as Melanotan II  – an unregistered form of α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone promoted for tanning, with minimal medical oversight.

Products were advertised online and via social media sites as being available after a brief phone consult with a doctor.

In the Federal Court case it was revealed that the doctor-patient interaction was a charade, with an undercover investigation revealing that the doctor “makes no attempt to conduct a medical history interview, fails to establish a diagnosis and does not talk about any need to have physical examination findings to confirm a diagnosis”.

The doctors used by the online site were found to have restrictions placed on their practice to ban them from prescribing peptides, and their role appeared to be simply to offer a range of peptides based on an online questionnaire filled out by the potential customer

“In my opinion the management plan fails to meet the requirements of a medically supervised treatment as there is no diagnosis of a medical condition, there is no ‘management plan’ for the condition and there is no option given for medical review after commencement of the peptides,” said expert witness Associate Professor Charlotte Hespe, a GP Clinician and Head of General Practice and GR Research at the University of Notre Dame,

Endocrinologists who gave evidence included Professor David Handelsman of the University of Sydney, who said that there was no medical justification for using the peptides and peptide treatments advertised by Peptide Clinics to treat the so-called “conditions” that were listed on its website.

The risks of taking such substances for the conditions were “completely unacceptable” and “…doctors should simply not prescribe such non-approved substances for frivolous non-medical complaints, such as tanning”, he said

Court documents showed that the business model was highly lucrative, with the company reporting more than $2 million in revenue and $890,000 profits in an 8 month period until it went into liquidation in March 2019.

Despite the company no longer trading, the court imposed a fine of $10 million as a deterrent to other healhthcare businesses “making [a] clear message that companies will not be able to profit from their wrongdoing”.

In a statement, the TGA welcomed the court’s decision saying the substantial penalties imposed “reflect the very real dangers to public health and safety and the egregious conduct of Peptide Clinics, including because the charade of medical practitioners’ involvement in the business gave consumers the false impression that those practitioners were acting in their best interests.”

“The TGA advises that interfaces that allow consumers to review and self-select prescription-only medicines for subsequent prescribing and supply, and websites that promote general classes of prescription-only medicines, will generally be considered in contravention of the Act.” it said.

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