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No, 1939 Cancer Act does not stop health professionals from finding a cure

A meme shared on Facebook in South Africa has sparked interest with its header “Do you know about the cancer act 1939?”

The meme says: “As it’s a criminal act to cure cancer under 1939 act which criminalises medical practitioners from even advising patients on such cures, wouldn’t that in fact make it fraudulent act for cancer charity’s [sic] to accept money under the presumption they will search for a cure but in fact it’s a criminal act for them to even publicise such cures!”

The post says to “check it yourself” by googling the act, and says that medical practitioners are being prosecuted “in America” for curing cancer. 

A link in the caption to the post is to “the actual original Cancer Act” and the caption also says that there is an amended version of the act. 

While it is true that the link takes readers to the original Cancer Act of 1939 of the United Kingdom, and that there is an amended version of the act, the act does not stop health professionals from finding a cure for cancer, in either the UK or anywhere else.

Act in no way prevents the development of cancer cures

In 2018, fact-checking website Snopes said that the act “in no way prevents people from developing or researching cures for cancer”. Research into cancer cures is in fact often funded in the UK, Snopes added. 

The act, said Snopes, is meant to stop just anyone from advertising that they have a product that will “cure” cancer.

“The law was intended to protect patients from quacks and snake oil peddlers, a threat as real to cancer patients then as it is today,” said Snopes.

This is how people have been prosecuted under the act, said Snopes. And there are fairly recent accounts of people breaching the Cancer Act of 1939.

If an individual did actually discover a cure for cancer, “they would be free under the Cancer Act of 1939 to publish about their discoveries in scientific journals, discuss them privately or in academic contexts, or to continue researching the concept”, said Snopes.

However, they would not be allowed “to present that information to the general public in advertisements in the United Kingdom”.

Can only advertise to those in medical profession

The UK-based fact-checking organisation Full Fact also looked at this claim. In a 2019 article, they said that the act “makes advertising cancer cures or treatments illegal unless it’s to certain groups, mainly those involved in the medical profession”.

“A lot of the act has been changed or replaced in the 70 years since it was first introduced, but the section on advertising is largely still in place,” said Full Fact. 

The only exceptions to advertising treatments for cancer, the article added, are “adverts published to bring these things to the attention of certain groups of people including: nurses, doctors, and pharmacists”. 

Councils and voluntary hospitals are also exempt, “as is anyone acting with the permission of the Secretary of State for Health”.

SA health professionals also have strict advertising guidelines

Caryn Myers, a lawyer from Myers Attorneys in Johannesburg, South Africa, said that the act is not part of South African legislation and falls under UK law. It is not applicable in South Africa at all.

After looking at the act, Myers said that “the advertising provision is in place so as to stop people playing on what is a terrible disease”.

“Health professionals in South Africa also have very strict advertising guidelines, specifically in respect of treatment and cures of medical conditions,” she said.

Because medical conditions and their treatments are highly sensitive and emotive topics, said Myers, “the advertising of them to try and lure a patient to choose one treatment or treatment facility over another, for example, is very strictly regulated”.

Part of the claim is that medical practitioners are being prosecuted and jailed in the US (“America”) because of breaching this act. When asked whether this could be true, Myers responded: “I can’t see how US citizens would be jailed in the US for contravening a UK act. They would have to have committed the offence within the UK.” – Taryn Willows


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