A Gateway to Medical Fraud: Drugs & Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act

Singular Effects of the Universal Vegetable Pills on a Green Crocer! (Image: Charles Jameson Grant, 1841, in William H. Helfand's book "Quack Quack Quack"/ Creative Commons)
Fake doctors claiming to have magic or miracle cures for severe ailments are breaking the law.

When the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act was enacted in 1954, the intention was to ban the tall claims of witches, voodoo doctors and faith healers from influencing the public.

However, the drafters of the Act did not account for the magic of word-of-mouth, multi-level marketing and outright defiance of legal guidelines. Many in India continue to take the advice of quacks, self-medicating on the basis of tall claims – often paying dearly for the misinformation.

In 1993, a lady whose son suffered from fits went to an Ayurvedic doctor in Rishikesh after reading about him in the newspaper. After three years of ‘treatment’, the boy’s fits grew worse – and a neurologist confirmed that the change was permanent. The cause? The Ayurvedic doctor had prescribed allopathic medicines that were not to be given to children.

The ‘doctor’ responsible, R.K. Gupta, went on to blatantly defy government laws and conventions. A panel of doctors in 2000 declared him a quack, who issued prescriptions from a pad with the Ashok emblem on it – a false claim of holding government office. His clinic offered a ‘miracle cure’ for epilepsy in newspaper adverts, and even paid patients to pose for the ads.

20 years after Bhanwar Kanwar’s son was permanently affected by a false prescription, she was awarded Rs. 15 lakh ($23,300) in damages, paid for by the doctor. By then, it is estimated that thousands of patients had visited and taken treatment from the doctor – who had prescribed medicines containing high levels of banned narcotics.

In another case, this time from Kerala, a man was left permanently crippled in his legs after taking a surgery that promised to “convert today’s dwarf into Amitabh Bachchan.”

The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisement) Act needs an update for the 21st century. For one, its restrictions are only loosely linked to modern advertising methods. Its idea of advertisement is largely print-oriented, though it also includes “any announcement made orally or by any means of producing or transmitting light, sound or smoke.” Other organisations, such as the Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI) and the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) have more stringent definitions.

Worse, the penalties for contravention are mild: a fine and up to six months in prison. The result is that police often try relying on other Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections such as the one for cheating, and only rarely use the Drugs and Magic Act in prosecution. And companies have circumvented its conventions by taking up Direct Marketing – combining multi-level marketing with dubious claims made face-to-face rather than in print.

The much hyped Ayurvedic and ‘herbal’ brand, Patanjali, valued over US$ 2 billion,  is a case in point. On December 15, 2016, a court in Uttarakhand slapped a fine of Rs 11 Lakhs on Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurveda for  “misbranding and putting up misleading advertisements”. The Advertising Standards Council of India observed that many of Patanjali Ayurveda’s advertisements are false, ‘misleading by ambiguity and exaggeration’, and not ‘adequately substantiated’. Much of this is propagated not only in Print media, but also through televised sessions by Baba Ramdev, word of mouth and online digital advertisements. 

However, one concern is not so much about what the Act bans, rather, what it permits. The Act does not apply to any advertisement for a drug “printed or published by the Government.” Drugs manufactured as per the ‘formulae described in the authoritative books’ of Ayurvedic, Siddha and Unani systems are considered to be legitimate, as per the first Schedule of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1948.

In 2014, the Indian Government set up a separate Ministry of Ayush – a Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) – to promote these alternatives, non-allopathic healing methods. As of 2016, 381 claims of false advertising had been filed against AYUSH-related products, in the Grievances Against Misleading Advertisements (GAMA) portal of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution.  

To tackle these, AYUSH and ASCI have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to work together against false ads. But what does one do when the Government’s own ministers make tall claims? Recently, the Minister for AYUSH had said that an Ayurvedic cure for Cancer as well as a Yoga-based cure for diabetes was “on the way.” In a separate incident, addressing a crowd at an event organised by the Akshay Patra Foundation, a minister in the Rajasthan Government claimed that cow dung neutralizes radioactive elements and said that cow was the only animal to inhale and exhale oxygen.

The Drugs and Magic Remedies Act (DMRA) needs an update for the 21st century. Misleading medical advice is distributed online, through social media and is still visible on street hoardings and posters. The act is also sexist in places. Till 2010, the advertisement of female contraceptives such as the morning after pill was prohibited – until this was lifted by the Drug Technical Advisory Board. The actual ban was the result of an embargo enforced in 2010 – but the relevant provision in the DMRA still remains.

As per Section 3 of the DMRA, ads may not be published which may be used for the “prevention of conception in women.” It was only in May 2016, that a court overruled it; the Chennai High Court ruled that Section 3 would not apply to contraceptives approved by the government.

But rather than a High Court ruling, an amendment would be a more welcome change. In fact, a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare has noted a “recurring delay” in amending the act and urges a ban on misleading advertisements on television regarding ‘traditional’ cures.

Between the loopholes, wild claims such as Hashmi’s “How to Grow Penis Again” persist on the internet despite being banned on the ground. That most of these claims are sex-related serve to prey on people’s insecurities.

India needs a cure for the unscientific, wild and often dangerous medical claims made by quacks and frauds. But we may very well have to worry about the claims of authority itself if the current climate of gaumutra (cow urine), gau-caca (cow-faeces) and ancient Vedic science continues.

More importantly, the need of the hour is to enforce the law in such a way that it prevents quacks, frauds and political agents from proliferating their myths and falsehoods.

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