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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