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COMMENT: Why medicine frauds just keep appearing

Imagine there's a company, Sheister & Bell, that advertises that their cellphone has the latest features: a gazillion pixel camera, perfect sound and super-duper speed.

Sheister & Bell adverts are in every major newspaper. They appear in your Google Ads when you browse the internet, and they're on tv and radio. They also have large poster-sized ads in the windows of most cell phone stores. Inside these stores, you'll also find slick Sheister & Bell adverts. And their phones dominate the cellphone shop shelves. They're displayed prominently in shiny packaging that repeats all their amazing claims.

But when you buy a Sheister & Bell phone, let's say for R1,000, there's nothing but disappointment. It can't make a telephone call because it has no antenna and the keys are fake. It plays no sound, it has no microphone and the camera is just a pretend one. The phone is nothing more than a toy.

Most people would agree that Sheister & Bell are frauds. They're claiming to sell you something that does a whole bunch of things it cannot do. We would think it reasonable for the Advertising Standards Authority to stop them from running their ads, at least on TV, radio and in major newspapers.

Many of us would agree that it would even be reasonable for the owners of Sheister & Bell to be prosecuted. After all, the deception is outrageous. And if a consumer watchdog had to call the owner of Sheister & Bell a “scam artist” and “fraud”, we'd find it laughable if the owner then sued the watchdog for defamation.

There is no cell phone company like Sheister & Bell. It could not survive. Yet there are dozens of companies perpetuating frauds analogous to Sheister & Bell. except with something far more important than cellphones; they sell health products that are as incapable of working as Sheister & Bell's phones.

The harm of Sheister & Bell is that they deceive us out of money. But these health product companies are worse: they risk making us sick, or even putting our lives in danger.

Public education about medicine important

Today Africa Check has exposed yet another charlatan selling a nonsensical AIDS treatment: Angel Zapper. There are many examples of quack remedies that advertise false claims: Herbex, Ultimate Sports Nutrition (USN) and Solal are among the worst current purveyors of nonsense remedies for weight loss, anti-ageing and libido boosting. Their advertising is ubiquitous, especially in pharmacies.

How does our society allow charlatans who mess with our health to proliferate? It's a difficult question to answer, but perhaps it has to do with it being much harder to tell if a medicine has an effect on our health than if a cellphone works. This is why scientists have over many decades developed excellent methods to evaluate medicines. Quacks like Angel Zapper simply ignore these methods.

It is because evaluating medical claims is hard that public education about science and medicine is important. Today's article by Africa Check is an important contribution to that education. In a country where science teaching is especially poor, it is vital that people who do understand how medical science works take the time to explain it to the public.

Regulation also needed

Education alone cannot stop quackery. Few of us have the time and skills to evaluate the medical claims we are bombarded with. We also need regulation, though admittedly how much and how to make it work are tricky problems, as well as how to do so in a way that doesn't infringe freedom of expression.

South Africa has laws, albeit confusing ones, that prevent false advertising about medicines but they are not meaningfully enforced in my experience.

In the last decade and a half the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which is a self-regulating body, not a government one, has been the most effective institution when it comes to preventing quack advertising claims. Unfortunately, several quack companies, including ones mentioned here, have gone to great lengths to undermine the ASA.

Recently they won a battle in the Gauteng High Court against the ASA that all but disables it. It is a terrible judgment for consumer protection (explained here). Thankfully it is being appealed and it is in the interests of public health that it be overturned.

Nathan Geffen is the editor of GroundUp and worked for the Treatment Action Campaign before that. Based on that experience he wrote Debunking Delusions: The Inside Story of the Treatment Action Campaign.


Additional reading

A roundup of fake AIDS ‘cures’: Angel Zapper, Garani MW1, Topvein, SF 2000

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