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Press releases 2002 -

Sweeping up bogus health claims

PN 14/02    19 March 2002

Over a thousand potentially misleading health claims on websites in the UK and around the globe have been uncovered by a co-ordinated worldwide internet search.

The OFT, Medicines Control Agency and 21 local trading standards authorities were among 58 enforcement agencies in 19 countries surfing the internet for websites making potentially misleading claims about health products and 'miracle' cures.

Over 170 UK-based websites were identified as potentially misleading during the internet sweep. More than a third of these promoted slimming and weight loss cures, while others offered treatments for cancer, arthritis, sexual performance and hair loss. Some used 'customer testimonials' or 'clinical studies' to try and add credibility to their claims.

Claims which are being investigated include:

  • a device to obliterate all viruses in the body including AIDS, hepatitis, cancer, meningitis and flu
  • an 'enriched urine' treatment for incurable illnesses
  • a tablet to be taken with alcohol to prevent a beer belly.

UK-based sites identified as making potentially deceptive, misleading or false claims are being pursued either by the OFT, MCA or local trading standards authority with a view to taking further action.

John Vickers, Director General of Fair Trading said: 'The OFT will pursue businesses who mislead customers with bogus health claims. Consumers should remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.'

This is the fourth time the OFT has participated in a global internet sweep. The sweeps were conducted under the auspices of the International Marketing Supervision Network (IMSN). The IMSN is an international network of enforcement authorities in 30 countries. Its main objective is to take action to prevent and redress deceptive marketing practices with an international component.

The OFT's tips for consumers who are considering buying health products online are:

  • beware of products or treatments that are advertised as a quick and effective cure-all for a wide range of ailments
  • be cautious of testimonials claiming amazing results
  • watch out for advertisers who use phrases such as 'scientific breakthrough', 'miraculous cure', 'exclusive product' and 'secret ingredient'
  • before you purchase, consult your pharmacist or other health professional.

The global results of the sweep are available on the website of the Switzerland State Secretariat for Economic Affairs under 'press releases'.

NOTES

1.  The ACCC co-ordinated the Internet Sweep on behalf of the International Marketing Supervision Network (IMSN).

2.  Consumers can report a suspected online scam to IMSN members by visiting www.econsumer.gov

UK legislation

3.  The Medicines Control Agency's primary objective is to safeguard public health by ensuring that all medicines on the UK market meet appropriate standards of safety, quality and efficacy. The advertising of medicines is controlled by a combination of statutory measures enforced by the MCA and self-regulation through codes of practice for the pharmaceutical industry, administered by trade associations.

4.  Trading Standards Authorities enforce the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. Under the Act, it is a criminal offence for a trader to make false statements about goods offered for sale.

5.  Under the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations 1988, the Director General of Fair Trading can apply to the High Court for a court injunction preventing the further publication of a misleading advertisement. The Director General's role under the Regulations is to support and reinforce the existing advertising controls.

6.  Since 1 June 2001, the Stop Now Orders (E.C. Directive) Regulations 2001 have provided a stronger mechanism for enforcing existing consumer protection legislation emanating from European Directives. This includes law on misleading advertising. The new powers provide the OFT, trading standards authorities and certain other specified bodies (known as Qualified Entities) with a potentially speedier means of taking civil injunctive action against traders infringing legislation and harming the collective interests of consumers.




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