Internet Health Sites Come Under Scrutiny
20 March 2002
If a miracle cure advertised on the internet sounds too good to be true then it probably is, warns the Ministry of Health following an international sweep of websites promoting health products last month.
"While the internet is an extremely valuable source of information, people must be wary of products or treatments that are advertised as a quick and effective cure-all for a wide range of ailments or for an undiagnosed pain," said Medsafe spokesperson Peter Pratt.
Mr Pratt said the Ministry was concerned some advertisers were taking advantage of vulnerable people with serious health problems to sell expensive products with unproven health benefits.
"If a product claims to have a therapeutic benefit, it must be registered as a medicine under the Medicines Act 1981 and have gone through strict testing for safety and efficacy. If it is not registered, then any advertised claims will be in breach of the Act."
"Consumers need to be vigilant. Our advice is that if you want to purchase a product off the internet you should consult your pharmacist, doctor or other health professional first."
Fifty-eight consumer protection and health authorities from all over the world, including Medsafe, swept the internet during February 28 and March 1 to monitor the marketing practices of websites promoting health products, and to pursue fraudulent health businesses.
Mr Pratt said during the sweep period, Medsafe, the Ministry of Health unit responsible for regulating therapeutic products, visited 53 suspicious sites that appeared to be operating from New Zealand. It discovered 10 sites in breach of the Medicines Act.
"Of particular concern were unregistered products that claimed to be a cure for serious and life-threatening diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS."
"One product in breach of the Act claimed to be able to destroy cancer cells, another promised it could alter the size of breasts. Other sites offered products that would cure pain and inflammation, and another advertised a product that could fix kidney and nervous disorders."
Mr Pratt said one website asked consumers to send samples of blood, urine or saliva through the mail for diagnosis. Such advertised invitations are not permitted in New Zealand under the Medicines Act.
"Medsafe is writing to the distributors named in the 10 sites breaching the Act explaining where the breaches occurred and giving them a chance to take remedial action such as removing the advertisements or making amendments to the wording."
"Medsafe has asked that action be taken within 14 days. We will monitor the websites and after 14 days, where necessary, will investigate the non-compliant sites. This may lead to prosecutions."
Mr Pratt said Medsafe is following up a further 26 suspicious sites and will warn distributors of their responsibilities under the Medicines Act.
"We advise consumers surfing the internet for therapeutic health products to be cautious of testimonials claiming 'amazing results' and promoters who use phrases such as 'scientific breakthrough', 'miraculous cure,' and 'secret ingredient'. We suggest they seek some independent advice about these products from a health professional."
Mr Pratt reminded consumers that while Medsafe could follow up with New Zealand distributors who were breaking the Medicines Act, overseas based health product websites were out of its jurisdiction.
"Consumers have to be just as cautious and circumspect with overseas sites and once again, if you want to purchase a product off these sites, you should consult your pharmacist, doctor or other health professional first."
For more information contact: Hayley Brock Media Advisor (04) 496 2115, 025 496 989 http://www.moh.govt.nz.html
What is Sweep Day? Sweep Day is an initiative of the International Marketing Supervision Network (IMSN), an organisation made up of 29 consumer protection agencies worldwide. New Zealand's Ministry of Consumer Affairs is a member of the IMSN.
IMSN tackles consumer problems connected with cross-border transactions in goods and services.
Sweep Day is a regular event, coordinated by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). The 2002 Sweep was the fourth such international sweep. Other Sweep Days have targeted get rich quick schemes and compliance with Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development guidelines.
Participants in this year's health fraud sweep on February 28/ March 1, included Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Finland, France, Hungary, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
How many websites in New Zealand were found to be suspicious? There were 53 suspicious websites identified in New Zealand, 10 of which were in breach of the Medicines Act 1981. Medsafe will be following up with another 26 sites. Worldwide over 1400 suspicious websites were identified.
What kind of websites were focused on during this year's sweep? We found websites that advertised pill cures, creams and lotions, devices such as exercise machines, weight loss programmes or products, cures relating to HIV/AIDS, cancer and arthritis, folk or traditional treatments and sexual performance enhancements or cures.
All sites were sent an email message advising them about the sweep and its purpose.
How were the 53 New Zealand sites assessed? The 53 New Zealand sites visited were checked for certain factors of concern, including:
Does the site make unsubstantiated claims of a dubious nature? 67% Yes
Does the site use testimonials to sell the product or service? 60% Yes
Are the testimonials from relevant experts or professionals? 19% Yes
Are the testimonials from other users of the product or service? 49% Yes
Is reference made to clinical studies or scientific experiments? 58% Yes
Are "before and after" shots used to promote purchases? 3% Yes
Does the site claim any approval/authorisation/affiliation with an official agency? 7% Yes
Is approval/authorisation claimed from an official agency outside your country? 3 % Yes