Monday, 15 April 2013

Misleading advertising promises big things

First printed in The Namibian 11 April 2013

Writing this weekly column has become the highlight in my week. In any given week I can expect at least three different issues to stick out their head that want to be brought to the attention of the esteemed readers.

The past week was one in which more than eight different issues have been raised and I found myself overwhelmed in making the decision of what to write about. Then on Tuesday while I was in a pharmacy seeking to purchase a vitamin supplement containing ginseng and St John’s Wort, it struck me that most of the issues the past week have been about misleading advertising. But first, let me tell you about my experience at the pharmacy.

For the past ten to twelve years I have been a big supporter of homeopathic medicines as an alternative to man-made medicine and worse, their expensive brand names that are pushed by our medical profession. In 2003, while spending a year studying the possibility of creating a central database for citizens in Germany, I was introduced to a natural product known as “Johanneskraut” (or St John’s Wort in English) for the treatment of depression. The doctor suggested I use the herb in a tablet form or in a liquid mixed with ginseng which would give me energy and combat fatigue. I have used the product over the past ten years and have felt it produced the desired result in regards cleansing my body and reducing the stress in my mind and increasing my energy levels.
This week, as I am returning to Windhoek, I felt I should once again get topped up in my vitamins and prepare for the stress lifestyle in the city. Purchasing the St John’s Wort was no problem, but I did not find the ginseng. At the next pharmacy I was in for a bit of a surprise. The pharmacy assistant guided away from the herbal medicines section to an area where the contraceptives and sexual stimulants were being displayed. The display cabinet had various packets advertising ginseng as an aphrodisiac to assist men in getting bigger or better in sexual performance. The packets all contained only an individual pill to be used for the specific purpose and were priced in the region of N$ 30 to N$ 40 each. After quite some discussion (some quite embarrassing I must add), I was able to make the assistant understand I was looking for the product as a herbal remedy and not because of any problem I might be having in the bedroom department. The assistant and I went through to the herbal department and we were able to find a packet of 20 tablets that was priced at a reasonable N$100. Thus the price would make it N$5 per tablet. Being the curious consumer activist that I am, I went back to check the contents of the expensive packets and compare with the one I purchased. When comparing the contents, it turns out both the single packet and the bulk packet contained exactly the same amount of ginseng per tablet.
My question now is: Why the big difference in pricing? The simple answer is that the products were aimed at different segments namely the natural herbal supplement market and the male sexual dysfunction market.
The biggest problem I have with the ginseng supplement is that it is being advertised as a product that will assist with a medical problem without any proof that this is the case. Worst of all, by making sure the product is being sold in a pharmacy the manufacturer is getting a silent endorsement as to the perceived effectiveness of the product.
If we had a consumer protection act, or at least some consumer protection agency, we as consumers would be able to register our complaints as get products that are using misleading advertising off our shelves.
Right now we have no protection.

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