In Australia, advertisements for therapeutic goods are screened by experts before getting on the air. Proposed amendments to the laws would remove this safeguard, opening the airwaves to basically anyone, including people advertising fraudulent and dangerous cancer “cures” based on homeopathy.
The changes would be devastating, especially for people who are used to having health-related commercials screened before appearing on TV. The plan is to remove the expert screeners and instead just fine companies who are proven to be putting forth harmful advertisements, which can be risky, according to Allan Asher, former deputy chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
During a public forum held in Canberra on Wednesday to debate the federal government’s Therapeutic Goods Amendment Bill, Asher told attendees the bill would abolish the requirement that advertisements for therapeutic goods be screened by an expert panel before being published or going to air.
Instead, the bill would see the Therapeutic Goods Administration given more powers to impose harsher penalties against manufacturers responsible for spurious and harmful advertising. The TGA believes these increased powers will be enough to deter manufacturers of drugs and complementary and alternative products from making false claims.
As Asher pointed told the Guardian, relying on the government to punish companies that harm people through their advertising is likely to cause even more problems. For one, people could be seriously hurt or killed if they take homeopathic treatments instead of real medicine. There are also financial risks to consider.
“Thousands of Australian consumers are losing money out of these scams on the internet for products that don’t work, and now these same scams will be able to be advertised in the mainstream media,” he said.
“Far more troubling than money lost by consumers who fall for these scams is the physical harm that will come to people. There is a risk people will buy these products that make outrageous claims for curing dementia, preventing heart attacks or treating cancer, and that people will shun the conventional and effective medical treatment that will actually help them.”
The first thing that came to my mind is that people in Australia will believe products are legitimate because they are used to having a screening process, and Asher said that’s a real concern. The bigger problem, though, is that the country doesn’t even have the expertise or tools to enforce harmful advertising laws. That means the dangerous ads could reach millions of people, and the company could evade punishment.
“We have a reasonably tight consumer protection system in Australia and people assume products that are dangerous are subject to enforcement actions,” Asher said.
“Until the TGA is given the resources and expertise to regulate advertising of these products and to enforce harsher penalties, the pre-approval process for advertising should stay in place. It may take a few years for the TGA to be properly strengthened, and as it is, it can take up to one year for a complaint about an advertisement to be resolved.”
He’s right. Until Australia’s systems for enforcement are in place, this screening system is their best bet to avoid unnecessary deaths caused by healing scams. Considering it’s pretty difficult to prove harm in a case like this, and it would require in-depth investigations from authorities, the process needs to be stronger before it’s implemented.
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