Two recent reports have thrown “herbal” or supposedly natural products into the spotlight – the “100 percent natural” Coca Tea, which was found to be laced with cocaine, and the Skintocare capsules for the treatment of acne, which were found to contain lead and poisoned at least seven people in KwaZulu-Natal.
So where’s the consumer protection when it comes to these “natural” products?
Well, in reality, there is none.
As I reported in March, it’s been 10 years since the Medicines Control Council (MCC) announced its “call-up” of products generally referred to as “complementary medicines” – “natural” products which do not have to be registered as medicines but which make health-related claims.
The intention was for the MCC to audit these products during a six-month period in 2002, but all that’s happened is that the list of products has grown very long in the past decade, with not one having been evaluated for safety, quality or efficacy.
“What this means is that for 10 years people making and marketing complementary medicines have done so with relative impunity, profiting off South Africans who have been convinced that they should use these products to improve their health and quality of life,” said Professor Roy Jobson of Rhodes University’s pharmacy faculty at the time.
Recently, while investigating the failure of most retailers in Chinese shopping malls to honour basic Consumer Protection Act provisions – such as refusing to take responsibility for defective goods – I saw a large variety of teas and creams claiming to improve your sex life or induce weight loss.
I saw packs of imaginatively named The (tea) Toninque Sex, Slimming Tea and Aphrodisiac Tea, and 3-Day Double Benefit Slimming Express Cream. One such product even claimed “Slim 20 minutes” (sic), which would be funny if desperate, gullible people weren’t seduced by it.
At best, these products don’t live up to their claims but are harmless; at worst, they contain substances that could make people ill.
But there they sit on the shelves, for sale to the unwary.
Given the pathetic lack of consumer protection when it comes to these products, consumers should proceed with caution.
Speaking of creative claims, last week the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned the world’s biggest cosmetics group, L’Oréal, to stop advertising its “anti-ageing” products using language that makes them sound like medical drugs.
As in SA, companies may not sell drugs in the US without first submitting an application to the FDA proving that they’re safe and effective, and getting the body’s approval.
The big difference between a drug and a cosmetic is that while drugs affect the structure and functioning of your body, cosmetics affect your appearance – they temporarily make you look better. That’s why so many cosmetic product claims make liberal use of the word “appearance”, as in “Reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles”.
It stands to reason that if cosmetics were as “rejuvenative” as their adverts claim them to be, the cosmetic surgery industry wouldn’t be thriving.
The products that prompted the FDA to send the cosmetics giant the warning letter are part of the Lancôme range. On its website, the company claimed that key products boosted the activity of genes, stimulated the production of youth proteins and “stimulate cell regeneration to reconstruct skin to a denser quality”, among other things.
In its warning letter to Lancôme USA’s president, dated September 7, the FDA’s public health service said the marketing claims violated the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
The company was given 15 business days in which to inform the FDA of the corrective action it had taken.
If Lancôme doesn’t sort out its claims, the FDA will move into enforcement mode, which includes product seizure.