Tuesday, May 28, 2013, 09:03
Not what the doctor ordered
By He Na

Not what the doctor ordered
(Song Chen / for China Daily)

Li Jing used to get on well with her parents. Whenever friends or colleagues asked for her secret, she always replied that obeying her parents’ wishes and helping to keep them cheerful were her best tactics.

However, family harmony was wrecked two years ago after one of her father’s friends introduced her parents to a late night health program on the radio.

“It’s called a ‘health-advice’ program, but actually it just contains adverts for various medicines, which are touted as being able to eradicate all disease. Because both of my parents have a number of chronic conditions, they quickly became regular, dedicated listeners,” said Li, 33, who works as an accountant at a hotel in Dalian, Liaoning province.

“Most of my parents’ pension went on fake medicines the program strongly recommended. They have been cheated several times already, but still haven’t learned the lesson that the media is full of these illegal ads for fake medicines,” Li said.

In April, when Li’s father came down with tracheitis, an infection of the windpipe, the doctor recommended that he should receive hospital treatment for a couple of days. However, Li’s father insisted on buying medicine he’d heard advertised on the radio instead.

He argued that a large number of patients with similar symptoms had called in and praised the medicine, claiming that their symptoms were completely gone and had not recurred after using the treatment over an extended period.

“I objected, of course, but my father was adamant that he would buy the medicine. It was the first time that we’d quarreled in public. He yelled and pointed his finger in my face and said he knew that I regard him as a burden,” recalled Li.

Realizing her father wasn’t going to change his mind, Li had no option but to watch him spend 3,500 yuan ($507) on three courses of the treatment.

“Just as I’d feared, he didn’t get better, but rather grew worse after taking the medicine. We had to rush him to the hospital one day when we discovered he was having difficulty breathing,” she said.

“The doctor diagnosed him as severely asthmatic and said we were lucky to have sent him in good time. If we hadn’t done that, the consequences could have been much, much worse,” said Li.

In the end, her father spent two weeks in hospital at a cost of a further 20,000 yuan.

Li’s parents are not the only ones taken in by illegal adverts for medicines. Reports of similar scams nationwide make up a long, depressing list, especially as medicines of this sort are hugely popular among the elderly and those from low-income groups.

Data from the China Food and Drug Administration show that more than 179,000 illegal medical adverts were investigated in 2012, almost three times the number in 2010.

Zhuang Yiqiang, deputy general-secretary of the Chinese Hospital Association, conducted a survey last year into newspaper adverts for medicines and found that around 40 percent of them were illegal. Experts have warned that these adverts, which have flooded the media, have drawn a massive number of complaints from the public.

“Medicine should cure ailments, but these misleading adverts waste people’s money and pose a threat to their health and livelihoods. They can also make people distrustful of the authorities that have failed to crack down on them, a course of action I think is essential,” said Lu Jiahai, professor at the School of Public Health at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.

A joint campaign

In a bid to reassure the public, the government has ordered a three-month campaign aimed at tightening supervision over advertisements for medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and health foods in the media and on websites from early May until late July.

The campaign was launched on April 22 by eight government agencies, including the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, the State Council’s Information Office and the State Administration for Traditional Medicines.

The campaign will target adverts that make false claims, exaggerate the efficacy of the product or deliberately confuse supplements with real medicines. Also in the spotlight are those who infringe image and name rights of experts, celebrities, research institutes and patients for promotion, or have failed to gain government approval.

“We will work with related departments to integrate the supervision of resources and — in the form of joint warnings, announcements and inspections — comprehensively use financial punishments, administrative penalties and criminal sanctions to punish violators,” said Gan Lin, vice-minister of the SAIC.

Long-term mechanism

“Both my grandparents have been cheated by fake medical adverts and I applaud this campaign,” said Chu Tianzhu, who owns a private English language school in Beijing.

“But I still have doubts about the campaign’s real effect, because as far as I know Beijing has carried out joint campaigns like this many times, but once the campaign ends, the illegal advertisements are just as active as before,” said Chu.

Li Jing raised a similar point. “My parents were very remorseful after being cheated and I thought our old, quiet life would return. However, the good days only lasted a month,” she said.

Her parents have now started to listen avidly to the adverts again and are planning to splash out on a type of “magic tea” that the adverts claim prevents people from catching colds.

“My parents are both in their late 60s and I really don’t want to be at loggerheads with them. However, is anyone willing to witness their loved ones being cheated time and again? My father’s excuse this time is that the ad is broadcast by a national radio station, and he trusts their credibility,” Li said.

“Can any government agencies ban illegal advertisements? If so, please do it immediately. Lots of elderly people are being cheated and young people are suffering too. A harmonious society should not be like this,” Li said.

“Eradicating these ‘tumors’ does not just depend on one or two campaigns, but in long-term and systematic supervision. Many people attribute the profit motive as the main reason for the spread of these illegal adverts. But from my research, I think the major reason lies in China’s current system for the management and supervision of medicines,” said Professor Lu.

He believes that the deluge of illegal or misleading medical adverts demonstrates that China’s medical industry is still in a phase of disorderly competition.

“The only way to solve the problem is for the leaders to take public health as a starting point for management, to clarify the responsibilities of each department, and then strictly enforce the law and introduce measures to greatly increase the costs to the advertisers,” he said.

Difficulties ahead

Xu Junbo, director of the department of advertising at Jilin Provincial Administration for Industry and Commerce, raised points he’s noticed in his daily work.

“Cracking down on illegal medical advertisements is always one of our major tasks, but it’s not as easy as many people think. There are some factors that greatly hinder our work,” Xu said. One point he highlighted is the development of the Internet and smartphones, which provide greater opportunities for those who issue illegal medical adverts, mainly because posting the ads is inexpensive and regulation is lax.

According to Xu, some ads are issued through servers located overseas, meaning the culprits often escape unpunished, because of geographical location and the difficulty of obtaining evidence against them.

“In addition, our current advertising laws came into force in 1995, meaning some elements are already out of date and need to be improved,” he said.

“Our economy has undergone earth-shaking changes during the past two decades and now China is the world’s second-largest economy. However, the laws have not changed. Given the huge profit available, the low fines and minor punishments handed down to those who flout the regulations have not proved much of a deterrent,” said Xu.

“We will continue to improve our working methods, and meanwhile, we hope revised laws and regulations on Internet advertising will be put into force soon,” he added.

Media responsibility

Professor Han Jisheng, an honorary director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at Peking University, said he was disgusted by illegal medical advertisements.

“The media are the ears and eyes that help to keep the public informed by up-to-date news, in-depth understanding of certain hot issues and a guide to help people achieve a healthy lifestyle. However, nowadays the media have, in some senses, lost direction,” said Han.

“The media indirectly plays a role in helping the cheats by driving profits, and the relevant authorities should be tougher on these ‘accomplices’,” he said.

Personal experience is another reason for Han’s disgust. He has received complaints that he represented or promoted fake medicines in adverts. However, he had no knowledge of these adverts. 

Han is one of China’s best-known neuroscientists and many unscrupulous advertisers have cashed in on his fame through unauthorized use of his name and image.

“I really felt sorry for some customers’ bad experiences, but in a sense, I am also a victim. To protect my image rights and help stop people being scammed, I have complained and even sued some of the advertisers who have infringed my image rights,” he said.

However, Han’s attempts to throw the book at offenders have been relatively unsuccessful. Often, the adverts simply disappeared for a few days before resurfacing again in different media. Sometimes, the advertisers simply changed the name of the product and carried on regardless. Added to this, appeals can often last several months and involve a large amount of money and travel.

Han said many friends and colleagues, who are also well-known medical researchers or doctors, have suffered the same problem.

“I am in my 80s now and I am willing to fight the cheats, but I’m unable to do so. However, I’m very wary now when strangers ask to have a photo taken with me during medical research meetings. I always check their name cards first, ” he said.

It’s an old trick: Fraudsters ask to have a photo taken alongside an expert and then use the image in advertisements, presenting the unwitting expert as a joint developer or promoter of dodgy medicines.

Han said it’s essential that the authorities impose a crackdown, one that provides genuine, practical help and not just empty words.

Guo Yinglu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and one of China’s leading urological surgeons, said that like a drowning man clutching at straws, people in dire need are willing to try anything. But if you fall sick, the first port of call should always be the hospital.

“How can these adverts be true? Many claim their products will eradicate disease, but please don’t be naive enough to be taken in by these lies,” he urged.

Contact the writer at hena@chinadaily.com.cn

Han Junhong and Shan Juan contributed to this story.