Roy Jobson
Roy Jobson

Beware the oracle

Chris Moerdyk states in his News24 opinion column of May 7 2012 that the editor of the magazine Health Intelligence (Mr Colin Levin) agrees with him (in an editorial on page 1 of Edition 15 – May/June 2012) about the latest food labelling regulations going “too far in their noble intention to (protect) consumers from misleading claims, [and that] they have effectively banned truthful claims as well”. (In the original editorial on page 1 of the magazine, the word “protect” is “prevent”.)

Moerdyk, himself something of a guru in the advertising world, tells us that Health Intelligence magazine is considered some sort of oracle by his “wife and health-conscious daughters-in-law”. Does this mean that he, too, considers the publication to be credible? Or even an oracle?

In fact, Health Intelligence (and Mr Moerdyk) have got it horribly wrong – the food labelling regulations which came into effect (after a one year delay to accommodate the foods industry) on March 1 2012 are only phase one of the regulations. Phase two will determine which truthful health claims, based on science, will be permitted. Phase two will only come into effect later in 2012 or in 2013. This means that the Health Products Association, as quoted by both Moerdyk and Levin, have also got it wrong.

Another editorial in Health Intelligence, by pharmacist Brent Murphy, incorrectly states that numerous natural medicines and herbal extracts were rescheduled in March 2012, and that this is an “unfair attack on the South African complementary and natural medicines industry…” He then lists 19 examples of newly scheduled or rescheduled substances. However of the 19, six were already scheduled in the mid-1980s, seven appear in the 2003 version of the schedules, and only six are “new”. Manufacturing a spurious “attack” on a whole industry based on a list of which less than a third of the substances is affected, is particularly disingenuous and even sensationalist.

I have, in a more private forum of healthcare colleagues and in correspondence with the editors concerned, pointed out several errors in previous editions of Health Intelligence magazine — to do with depression (edition 10); sexual responses (edition 12); the surgery undergone by Steve Jobs (edition 12); and, in the previous edition (14), the misquoting of a reference by Mr Levin in his editorial “confirming” that sugar “causes” cancer. It seems that my several goodwill attempts in freely and voluntarily assisting the editorial team of Health Intelligence to live up to its claims of being “Sophisticated. Cutting Edge. Credible.” have been in vain.

It must be embarrassing to the members of their erudite medical advisory board to be associated with such ongoing misinformation. CAVI Brands — which “own and license a selection of premier brands in Southern Africa” including Health Intelligence magazine, would presumably also not be particularly happy with the persistent errors, especially as one of their core values is “[a]cting with integrity and transparency in everything we do”.

We all agree that consumers have the right to choose — but the assumption behind this must be that consumers have been given correct and accurate information in order to make fully informed choices. Unfortunately in the world of health products’ advertising — and because of inherent safety issues, health products cannot be regarded as ordinary commodities. False and misleading claims nevertheless predominate in the industry, and can be found even in the “oracle” itself. As the minister of health stated in an answer to a parliamentary question in October 2010, there were then 155 000 complementary medicines on the market, of which none had been assessed for safety, quality or efficacy.

My concerns about the inaccuracies in the editorials in Health Intelligence‘s edition 15 have been relayed in a letter to the editors of the magazine. It will be interesting to see if they publish it. The letter itself and more details are available on Dr Harris Steinman’s useful “CAMcheck” website at: www.camcheck.co.za/health-intelligence-misguiding-the-public.

An oracle is supposedly the vehicle through which deities communicate. The “deities” behind the Health Intelligence “oracle” may prove to have no more veracity than the rather inadequate old man behind the Wonderful Wizard of Oz illusion in L Frank Baum’s children’s novel.

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    • Dr Harris Steinman

      Chris Moerdyk gets his information and opinion from Health Intelligence, a magazine edited by the directors of Solal, purveyors of many unsubstantiated products; e.g., anti-aging products, with no proof of benefit in humans, but in worms. (www.camcheck.co.za/anti-aging-pill/).

      Solal, in attacking the Directorate Food Control, deflects attention from its own attitude to regulations: they continue to illegally sell a range of products containing stevia and erythritol. (Legislation still in draft mode) They are serial offenders of misleading health claims: the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has issued at least 15 adverse rulings against Solal for unsubstantiated or misleading claims.

      Solal says “. . . consumers are denied the opportunity to make fully-informed decisions . . . “, yet Solal have threatened legal proceedings against consumers and scientists for assisting consumers to do so. And bizarrely, Solal have “lodged a criminal complaint against the ASA
      . . ., as well as a complaint with regard to Section 41 of the National Consumer Protection Act” (www.asasa.org.za/ResultDetail.aspx?Ruling=6003).

      Regulation R146 protects consumers AND manufacturers and prevents the abuse of claims, which may not only mislead the consumer, but forces other brands to follow suit in order to compete. R146 prevents this. Note: the HPA mission states explicitly:”[T]o protect the industry. . . “.

      The on-going misleading of consumers continues. Time to stop.

    • beachcomber

      Re; Dr Harris Steinman’s comment “The on-going misleading of consumers continues. Time to stop”.
      One naturally wishes that this were the case on both sides of the fence. Although many health claims of alternative health products may have actual health benefits, their lineage is mostly anecdotal.
      That a health or food product (registered or unregistered) on the shelf claims certain benefits is no guarantee that it WILL provide the desired benefit.
      This has been shown in the rise of obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and allergic reactions in the general population.
      The fact that so many registered drugs and therapies are available for a single specific health problem like anxiety shows that treatment is not always a silver bullet cure and that there may well be merit in alternative therapies. That they make claims is no different from the claims of the drug companies.
      The term “scientific” is a misnomer in that it creates the impression of infallible research. Anyone in the “scientific” field knows that very few proofs are absolute and that results achieved in one part of the world may not be able to be duplicated elsewhere.
      The essence of the situation is that international pharmaceutical groups are seeing their markets being diluted by alternative therapies and through their financial clout are influence governments and lawmakers in their favour.
      When in doubt, follow the money.

    • IMPEDIMENTA

      Thank you for upholding the need for science-based decision making.

      As consumers we are only empowered by accurate information. Anything less that accurate does us a disservice and should be exposed.

      Health Intelligence is just one of many local magazines that uphold myths and supports spurious science. Buyer beware.

    • Dr Harris Steinman

      I agree with the sentiments of beachcomber. I am not in anyway suggesting the opposite: that “orthodox” medicine is therefore the solution – fraud occurs in any paradigm.

      I am saying unequivocally that evidence-based medicine is better than zero (or insufficient) evidence. The former consists of “proof”, the latter “faith”. Evidence can be examined, tested and rejected. This applies to Big Pharma as well. Hippocrates said: “There are, in fact, two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.” This still is relevant today.

      A common argument used against individuals who argue for proof of efficacy (like me), is that they must be pro-orthodox medicine. This is a false argument. The concern is genuine, the request simple: supply proof for the claims and regulate what constitutes proper evidence. Prevent abuse of science and evidence. These are necessary measures in order to prevent consumers from being ripped off. I too am a consumer.

    • MLH

      Recent claims http://www.diabetesdiet.me are that none of us should be using margarine or any oils that are not cold pressed, because it is these (in simple terms) that coat the blood cells making them unable to process the sugar in our systems. I am no authority, but the timing fits the introduction of margarines and oils that are extracted by heat processes.
      An example of how far behind our food manufacturers can be. If this is indeed true (and the document quotes the reseacrh studies) I think we should have 36pt health warnings on all hydrolised and heat-extracted oil products.

    • beachcomber

      @ Dr Steinman – “There are, in fact, two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.”

      Unfortunately in areas of medicine like mental health, opinion is a factor in determining medication and teens and now pre-teens are being prescribed scheduled medication based on the opinion of a doctor. There is also debate around how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in the USA is influenced by lobbyists of the pharmaceutical industry.

      The multiplicity of contributing factors to a problem are often sidelined in favour of a quick fix. The debate around Ritalin being a case in point.

      As regards supermarket “health foods” especially “breakfast cereals”, the major producers are often climbing on the bandwagon with spurious advertising on their packaging like “contains a source of fiber” “packed with vitamins” etc.

      As I said previously – follow the money.

    • Enough Said

      There are science based studies on Complimentary Alternative Medicine that are dismissed by spin doctors acting on behalf of ‘science based medicine’. Beware of the big pharma snake oil salesmen that masquerade as scientists.

      There are time tested ancient medical systems from India and China that threaten big pharma’s entrenched monopoly and they don’t like it.