Intended for healthcare professionals


Miracle cures advertised on the internet

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: (Published 19 September 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:769
  1. Alex Brooks
  1. BMJ

    Enforcement agencies from 20 countries last week “swept” the internet for potentially misleading health claims and miracle cures. The exercise turned up advertisements for a herbal remedy claimed to help patients become free of cancer within 10-14 days, books that claimed to contain “the cures for all cancers, all diseases and for HIV and AIDS,” and a slimming soap from Japan said to “wash away fat in seconds.”

    The aim of the three hour sweep was to educate website operators about existing legislation and remind site operators that it is not necessarily the law of the country in which they reside that applies to their activities. However, enforcement agencies admit that there is often little they can do to regulate advertising on the internet.

    The Office of Fair Trading, one of 60 enforcement agencies involved in the global sweep, said that it could apply to the High Court for a court injunction preventing the further publication of a misleading advertisement. However, a spokesman admitted that “litigation is theoretically possible but difficult.”

    Misleading advertisements on the internet are under the jurisdiction of several different agencies. The Advertising Standards Agency is the main agency involved in regulating internet advertising in the United Kingdom but can act only if the site is based in the United Kingdom. A spokesman said that the agency wished to respect the unregulated nature of the internet but will look at any complaint it receives. It has received 102 complaints about internet advertising; it took action on 28 of these. The Medicines Control Agency can act if a substance that should be prescribed is marketed on the internet.

    The European Advertising Standards Agency coordinates regulation effort across Europe and in other countries, such as South Africa. However, it is easy for sites to move to countries that have no regulation.

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