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Dangerous ‘Barbie drug’ Melanotan-II sparks crackdown on social media influencers

Barbie Drug

Authorities are warning about a product dubbed the “Barbie drug” that promises to give users a tan without the sun, but can have serious side effects including, in rare cases, melanoma.

Last month the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) issued a warning about Melanotan-II, a substance being widely spruiked on social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram.

Melanotan-I is a prescription drug used to treat a rare incurable genetic disorder, but Melanotan-II is not approved by the TGA and its development as a potential medication was halted years ago due to safety concerns.

Dermatologist Katherine Armour said it could have serious side effects for users.

“There is often a change in the appearance of many of their moles, such that it can be difficult to detect melanomas or sometimes, clinically, for us to exclude melanoma,” Dr Armour said.

“There have also been rare case reports of melanoma developing in users of Melanotan-II.

“Other reported side effects of Melanotan-II include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and abdominal pain. There have also been reports of chest pain, breathlessness, kidney failure, and dizziness.”

She is concerned about its growing popularity online.

“It’s concerning because so many particularly young people, of course, do use social media as a common way to research their topics of interest nowadays,” she said.

“And the way Melanotan-II has been promoted is really irresponsible.”

The TGA has warned not only consumers but also social media influencers who promote the product that there could be big consequences for spruiking it.

In a statement, TikTok confirmed it had banned hashtags associated with the drug and would continue to assist the TGA by removing videos that breached its community guidelines.

TGA adjunct professor John Skerritt said the TGA had been working with social media companies to take posts down and it would target influencers with big fines.

“We have issued a couple of hundred fines for inappropriate advertising or import and supply of product. So it’s not a hypothetical. It’s been millions of dollars in fines,” he said.

“But frankly, either for high-profile influencers or for companies, the major thing they suffer is damage to their image.”

Ban on paid testimonials

The TGA has attempted to curtail the power of influencers with changes to the TGA code, which took effect in July this year.

The changes prohibit influencers from giving paid testimonials about therapeutic goods.

Dr Skerritt said it was an important move to protect the public from misinformation.

“There’s a lot of promotion by influencers of medicines and medical devices in areas they’re not really qualified to promote,” he said.

“And we are worried about the impact that can have on people’s health.”

But some say they have been unfairly caught up in the changes to the TGA code.

Samantha Brett, the founder of a popular sunscreen brand, said it was unfair that sunscreen had been included in the ban.

“For sunscreen to be lumped in with illegal products that influencers are spruiking is absolutely ridiculous and insulting,” she said.

“I’m very happy for the TGA to put a ban on influencers or anyone spruiking any dangerous products.

“But when it comes to sunscreen, it is not a dangerous product, it is a product that can save your life.”

Four decades after the Slip! Slop! Slap! campaign, Australians are three times more likely to be diagnosed with melanoma in their lifetimes.

Ms Brett said the government should be harnessing the power of social media, rather than restricting it.

“Young people, the younger generation, they’re glued to their phones, they’re looking at social media constantly,” she said. 

“And if they’re seeing hundreds, thousands of people they look up to — celebrities or just their friends or people in their circle — wearing sunscreen and they’re encouraged to wear it, that’s a good thing.”

Law has not kept up with technology

There are concerns the consequences for social media platforms or influencers who promote potentially dangerous products do not go far enough.

Slater and Gordon public liability lawyer Lily Boskovski said the law had not kept up with the rise of social media.

“As it stands, there isn’t any legal recourse against a social media platform and/or an influencer if you do develop an adverse reaction to something you’ve taken that was brought to your attention by the social media platform,” she said.

She said change was necessary and inevitable.

“Given the power of social media and influencers on a particular generation of people who consume social media a lot … I envisage in time that there will be some changes to the law so that there can be recourse … for people affected by products, but also, I think, to protect the community.”

She said at the moment, the only recourse consumers had was against the manufacturers of products such as Melanotan-II, even if they were based outside of Australia.

“The Australian Consumer Law does not only apply to goods manufactured here,” she said.

“So there are legal consequences and legal avenues for people to use that currently exist. And we encourage anyone to speak to us, because that is complicated.

“But it is an avenue that is currently available.”

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Via Lauren Day
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