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How we stop advertisers from taking advantage of vulnerable consumers

15 March 2019

On 7 September 2018, we directed a business to take down a Facebook ad for a product that claimed to treat cancer.

We directed the advertiser to remove the advertisement because it might have stopped someone with cancer from seeking appropriate treatment from a health professional or stopping a prescribed treatment. We know that people with serious conditions can be vulnerable, and we have powers to stop advertisers from taking advantage of them. Claiming that a product treats cancer in an advertisement for a therapeutic good is not allowed.

Failure to comply with a direction is a criminal offence, which can mean fines or jail time.

In this case the advertiser complied with our directions on the advertisement. This was a positive outcome for public health, but we can't achieve results like this without you.

We need you to tell us about advertisements you see that don't meet the requirements of the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code.  You can do this by making a complaint through our online complaints form.

Your complaint helps us monitor the behaviour of advertisers and identify threats to public health that need immediate action.

In this article, we will explain how we manage complaints, what you should look out for in therapeutic goods advertisements, and how you can make a complaint.

How we manage complaints

We take action on all complaints.

When you tell us about a potential advertising breach, we consider a range of factors which help us decide what action is appropriate. We take action proportionate to the risk identified. This means that if an advertisement is of high risk to public health, we take swift action. If the advertiser doesn’t fix the issue, there can be serious penalties.

The two most important factors in determining risk are:

  • consumer health and safety
  • behaviour of the advertiser

If there is a higher risk, we will contact the advertiser and ask them to take immediate action. We may issue a direction, cancel or suspend our authority for the supply of the product in Australia, or even take court action.

Where there is a lower risk, we let the advertiser know that they are non-compliant, and provide education material. This gives the advertiser an opportunity to correct any issues.

If we continue to receive complaints about particular advertising, we may provide further guidance or issue a formal warning that the advertiser must respond to. If the advertiser continues to break the rules despite our attempts to help them achieve compliance, we may take more serious action.

Sometimes we can't act on a complaint because it is outside our responsibility, for example if the complaint is about food or a cosmetic, or overseas advertising. If that is the case, we will let you know, and with your permission we may be able to pass the complaint to the appropriate organisation.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has information about consumer protection agencies that may be able to provide further support on advertising issues.

Learn more about how we handle complaints here.

What to watch out for

Here are some of the things to watch out for in advertisements for therapeutic goods:

  • any claim that a medicine or medical device is 100% effective, harmless, or free of any side effects
  • claims that exploit fear, such as a claim that your health problem will get worse if you don't take a medicine or use the product
  • references to serious conditions such as cancer, heart disease, mental illness, or poisoning
  • any claims that seem too good to be true

Any of these could breach the Advertising Code.

There are some exceptions. For example, advertisements relating to broad-spectrum sunscreens may mention the prevention of skin cancer, while other advertisements normally cannot. But this is an exception, not the rule.

For more information, check our consumer guide to therapeutic goods advertising requirements.

How can you help?

If you think an ad for a therapeutic product breaches the Advertising Code, you can make a complaint by completing our online complaints form. You will not need to tell us what the breach is, but be ready to give us as much detail about the advertisement as you can, including your concerns about it, where you saw it and what the ad was for, including a copy or link.

For more information about the advertising of therapeutic goods, and to see the outcomes of prior complaints, check our Advertising hub.