Crow’s feet? Creased forehead? Sweaty armpits? Botox is regularly touted as a solution in the Swiss media, but few reports mention the animal cruelty involved.
A Swiss animal rights group, the Verein gegen Tierfabriken Schweiz (VgT), has been staging demonstrations to raise awareness of the problem.
“There’s been a lot reported on botox, but very little about the animal cruelty aspect. So the best thing is to provoke,” VgT president Erwin Kessler told swissinfo.ch.
The group homed in on Lucerne after the Permanence Medical Center in the railway station announced plans to offer walk-in cosmetic botox treatments.
“It had some effect. The opening of the botox clinic has been postponed,” Kessler said. “Now the Swiss Federal Railways must decide. They might approve it after all, but if they do, we’ll protest.”
For every batch of botulinum toxin created, tests are performed on laboratory mice. The standard test is the LD 50, which determines that the nerve poison is at the correct strength if half the mice die.
It starts with a jab in the belly. Impaired vision, paralysis and respiratory trouble follow; eventually, the mice suffocate. The process takes three or four days. The surviving mice – no longer fit for more testing – are typically killed in gas chambers.
Doctors Against Animal Experiments Germany estimates that worldwide at least 600,000 mice die in the making of botox each year. It predicts that the number will rise as the popularity of the quick wrinkle fix soars.
Although there is a European ban on animal testing for cosmetics, botox makers can get around it because the drug was first created to treat medical problems (see box).
The VgT has also set its sights on Zurich’s smoothline clinic, which opened in 2007. Kessler and his colleagues demonstrated outside in July.
Clinic director Dan Iselin says he understands their stance. Asked about botox and animal testing, he said: “It's always a topic – it’s one obstacle in our business development. However, it is an ethical problem first of all."
Iselin’s clinic, located just off Bahnhofstrasse, the city’s main shopping street, offers both botox and fillers to iron out wrinkles and plump up lips. Business has been good, but Iselin admits that a lot of customers are concerned with the ethical aspect.
“A lot of women would be interested in cosmetic botox treatments but animal testing is an issue for them,” he told swissinfo.ch.
He says he would welcome alternative forms of testing, but that it’s in the hands of botox manufacturers and drug regulators.
The US company Allergan is the largest producer of cosmetic botox, sold as Botox® in the United States and Vistabel® in Europe.
In June, Allergan issued a statement on animal testing, saying that the company strives to minimise it while staying in compliance with the US Animal Welfare Act and similar regulations worldwide.
“While Allergan uses alternative methods to animal research and testing whenever possible, there is not yet an approved and validated, safe alternative capable of completely replacing animal research and testing at the present time,” the company said.
It pointed out that revised testing methods in 2006 and 2007 had allowed Allergan to reduce the total number of animals used, but that it hoped to cut the number to zero.
“We have made it a priority to develop and validate a non-animal based test to eliminate any need for an animal-based release assay and we have invested significant time and resources toward that development.”
Professor Peter Maier, scientific advisor to the 3R Foundation, describes the botox problem as an “exasperating tale”.
The 3R Foundation is a Swiss institution promoting alternative research methods. The three Rs stand for reduction, refinement and replacement of animal testing.
Maier believes cosmetic botox ought not to have been approved without a substance-specific in vitro test for quality control. Research has shown that it would be possible to test botox on cells, for example.
“Here we have a classic example of the infinitely slow implementation of in vitro tests for global regulatory acknowledgment,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Yet the LD 50 test can be performed by anyone, even without a scientific education. The other tests would require highly skilled staff and more expensive equipment.
Kessler laments how commercialism often trumps animal welfare. “The animals always come last. Animal protection only comes when it’s convenient.”
Originally, botox (botolinum toxin) was created to treat medical conditions like muscle spasms such as uncontrollable blinking. After it is injected, it blocks the nerve impulses in the area for two to six months.
Doctors later found that the nerve poison could be used to temporarily erase wrinkles. The popularity of botox as a beauty aid has soared ever since.
While the demand for youthfully smooth skin is high, the cost of a botox treatment is relatively low. Prices start at SFr200 ($189) and the procedure takes just 15-30 minutes.
In Switzerland, the number of botox treatments is estimated at anywhere between 150,000-400,000 a year.
The Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products (Swissmedic) says the potent nerve poison doesn’t even belong in the cosmetic industry.
“From our perspective it’s nonsense because it can have severe side effects,” spokesman Joachim Gross told swissinfo.ch. The supervisory agency issued a formal warning in 2008.
The harmful side effects can include problems with swallowing and breathing if botox is applied to the throat area, and paralysis or suffocation if too much gets into the bloodstream.