Not what the doctor ordered

Updated: 2013-05-28 07:21

(China Daily)

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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.

Not what the doctor ordered

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.

Han Junhong and Shan Juan contributed to this story.