Posted 24 August 2011
This article appeared in noseweek August 2011. Permission to reproduce this article here was kindly provided by the editor.
Dis-Chem refuses to stop selling useless “slimming” muti
NOSEWEEK has had many a go at snake oil salesmen who distribute products that miraculously enable you to shed pounds, stop smoking or lengthen a penis. But, so far, the supposedly reputable stores that are quite happy to sell this stuff to a gullible public have escaped scrutiny.
Several Noseweek stories have involved Dr Harris Steinman, the medical researcher who makes a point of lodging complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about any “medical” product that makes unsubstantiated claims. Steinman has been battling for some time with Planet Hoodia CC, a firm that sells a weight-loss product under names like Hoodia Slender Gel and Slender Max. The advertising makes wild claims such as: “Suppresses appetite”, “Reduces cravings”, “Increases energy levels”, “Enhances skin tone”, and “Will assist with reducing the appearance of cellulite (and) increasing body detoxification”. The product is advertised extensively in magazines such as You, Huisgenoot and Heat.
As Planet Hoodia has been unable to prove any of their claims, the ASA ruled that it must stop talking such nonsense — a ruling Planet Hoodia has blatantly disregarded.
Steinman recently asked the ASA to get tough. Which it did on 3 February this year, when it held that Planet Hoodia’s conduct “screams in the face of the respondent’s very first response… in which it conceded that there are no studies to show that Hoodia or its products have any effect on weight loss”. It went on to hold that “the respondent’s website material and print advertisements… are in flagrant breach of previous Directorate rulings… a harsher sanction is warranted at this stage, as previous sanctions proved ineffective… the respondent is to publish an adverse publicity statement”. The wording will be prepared by the ASA and the statement, which will be published full-page and in colour, is to appear in 11 different magazines Steinman also asked that major retailers of the product be joined in this ruling, but the ASA felt that this was inappropriate because “the primary responsibility for ensuring compliance with any ASA ruling lies with the relevant advertiser”.
It would not be appropriate to hold shops accountable, it said, pointing out that the rulings were public documents “and may be disseminated to any interested party”.
Steinman seized upon the suggestion and got to work. On 8 February he sent an email to Dis-Chem, a major stockist of the product. “I would appreciate it if Dis-Chem could stop stocking this product which has no proof of efficacy, and physiologically makes no sense (hoodia is not absorbed through the skin),” he wrote.
Dis-Chem tarried and then kicked for touch, with their Jeannette Spence responding on 31 March: “We are currently investigating the matter with the supplier concerned and have requested a detailed response to your claims”.
Steinman replied: “I accept your need to get the details from the supplier, but… if they’d had any proof that their product had efficacy, this would have been supplied to the ASA. In other words, they have none”.
There was nothing further until Noseweek got involved, when Spence sent Steinman a copy of an internal email she’d received from Dis-Chem’s group category manager: vitamins and supplements, Craig Fairweather (yes, as in friend!).
The response is hard to follow but is basically that the product is now being sold as Slender Max, no longer makes the contested claims — and besides, “Dr Steinman’s request for a ruling against Dis-Chem… was not upheld by the ASA… Planet Hoodia feels it is for their concern and responsibility alone, and not a matter that needs to be addressed by any outside entity”. In other words: we don’t care if it doesn’t work, it’s Planet Hoodia’s problem”.
Steinman replied to Spence on 22 June saying, “Dis-Chem claims to be a company of ‘pharmacists who care’ and one would expect Dis-Chem pharmacists to have the scientific knowledge to know when a product is a scam or not, therefore Dis-Chem’s pharmacists are scientifically inept or do not care. I cannot tell you how appalled I am with Dis-Chem’s attitude and decision”.
This apparently left Dis-Chem flummoxed. On 24 June Fairweather wrote to Steinman: “I am a little perplexed at your response in light of the ASA ruling which specifies that it would not be appropriate to hold retailers accountable. To my knowledge there has not been a ruling by the appropriate regulatory body requiring that the product in question be removed from the shelf for any reason. Should there be a ruling of this nature we would definitely comply. As a retailer our intention is simply to ensure satisfied customers through availability of stock items they demand”.
Time for the “patient explanation to a backward child” approach. Steinman to Fairweather on 24 June: “Dis-Chem has continued to sell a product whose claims… implicit in the name, suggest weight loss.
“The ASA has ruled against the use of weight-loss claims as well as the use of ‘hoodia’ to promote these products, for consumers associate hoodia with weight loss, an unproven myth created around hoodia.
“Even if the ASA ruling did not rule against the selling of this product but only the claims, Dis-Chem has pharmacists who would appreciate that there is no proof for efficacy or safety of this product, and therefore Dis-Chem is profiting from the selling of a product like this. Whether users demand this it does not absolve Dis-Chem from this fact… the CPA [Consumer Protection Act] makes it clear that all links in a supply chain, from the manufacturer to the retailer, are culpable if a product is found defective (i.e. has no proven efficacy)…
“By explaining this to you, I have now fully included you in the loop of supplying the facts, which means that Dis-Chem cannot claim to not know these… I simply feel very, very strongly about consumers being duped, and in this case, by Dis-Chem playing a major role in abetting this scam”.
Still too much for Fairweather. On 29 June he wrote: “As stated previously, my decision to continue stocking the product is with good intentions and I am not looking to seek conflict with yourself or any regulatory body. This being said, we do not agree on various of the fundamental issues pertaining to this matter. We will uphold the ASA ruling to cease to advertise the product with the offending claims and will also welcome and abide by any MCC… ruling in this regard”.
Dis-Chem will continue selling a nonsense product because there’s a demand for it.
Steinman is so outraged that he’s gone back to the ASA, this time seeking an order requiring Dis-Chem to stop stocking any products that the ASA has ruled against. And for an order declaring Dis-Chem’s slogan “Pharmacists Who Care” to be untruthful and therefore a contravention of the ASA Code.
noseweek august 2011