Curb ads that promise health cures
Pushpa Girimaji

THE government has finally turned its attention to a problem that has serious repercussions on consumer health: advertisements that promote drugs and health cures and gadgets.

Today, cures of questionable efficacy and gadgets of unknown values are being peddled through not just the print, but also television and the Internet. There is a proliferation of such advertisements that exploit the vulnerability of those suffering from certain diseases or an inferiority complex regarding their physical stature or looks.

The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act is specifically meant to tackle such false and misleading claims, but it is totally outdated and inadequate to deal with the present-day situation it has no provision to tackle television and Internet advertisements. The Union Health Ministry has said that the law is being amended to curb such advertisements and award stringent punishment to those found guilty of violation.

As it stands, the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954, basically prohibits four kinds of advertisements pertaining to drugs and magical cures. Section 3 of the Act says that no person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement promoting a drug or leading to the use of a drug for the procurement of miscarriage in women or prevention of conception in women; the maintenance or improvement of the capacity of human being for sexual pleasure; and correction of menstrual disorders in women.

Section 3 further prohibits any advertisement promoting drugs for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of any disease, disorder or condition specified in the Schedule. The schedule lists a number of diseases, disorders or conditions such as diabetes, cataract, cancer, fevers (in general), obesity, rheumatism, impotence, high or low blood pressure, female diseases, epilepsy, stature of persons, venereal diseases, glaucoma, sterility in women, dropsy, etc.

Section 4 of the Act prohibits those advertisements relating to a drug if they contain any matter which directly or indirectly gives a false impression regarding the true character of the drug or makes a false claim for the drug or is otherwise false or misleading. Section 5 of the Act prohibits advertisements of magic remedies for treatment of certain diseases and disorders.

Violation of the law attracts imprisonment for six months or fine or both, for first conviction and for subsequent conviction, imprisonment for a year or fine or both.

The Union Ministry of Health has said that the amended law would not only tackle advertisements on the electronic media, but would also provide for severe punishment to those that violate the law. The move is welcome, but it would be far more effective if the law were to provide for corrective advertisements in fact this is absolutely necessary to ensure that the impression created by a false or misleading advertisement is corrected through a series of advertisements.

But amendment of the law is only one part of the solution. What is equally important is its strict implementation Remember Neeraj clinic, Rishikesh? Despite the Magic Remedies Act, RK Gupta advertised with impunity his clinic and claimed that he was offering a sure cure for epilepsy. Ironically, way back in 2000, the Indian Medical Association had declared him a quack after a committee had found that he was giving his patients toxic drugs in high doses. Then in May 2003, following a complaint from a consumer, the Advertising Standards Council of India had held that the advertisement violated the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act. Yet, he continued to advertise and the drug control departments failed to act, resulting in thousands of consumers falling prey to these advertisements.

In fact there are a number of advertisements in the print media itself, promoting indigenous cures or medicines for a variety of ailments listed in the Schedule of the Act and no action whatsoever is taken against any of them. If only the enforcement agencies were active, there would not be cases like the one that went before the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission in Kerala some years ago. Young Nadiya, who was short, was attracted to an advertisement that promised to convert a dwarf into Amitabh Bachchan. Fathima Hospital, which had issued the advertisement, promised her that she would gain 10 cm in six months through surgery, costing Rs 32,000. The so-called correction surgery left her bedridden. Eventually, she approached Apollo Hospital, Chennai, which could restore her movement, but not completely. If the state Health Department had done its job, the girl would not have had to go through so much of physical and mental pain and anguish.

So in addition to amending the law, the government should provide for an independent mechanism to monitor the implementation of the law and ensure its stringent enforcement. Corrective advertisements are also absolutely essential.