HSA Consumer Guide. What is HSA s role in regulating the advertisements of health supplements?

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1 August 2009 Health Supplements: Learn More About Misleading or Exaggerated Claims in Health Supplements Advertisements HSA advises consumers to be cautious of exaggerated and misleading claims in advertisements of health supplements, which may not be supported by adequate scientific and clinical studies. Over the years, health supplements have gained popularity and usage among consumers in Singapore. As a consumer, it is useful to learn more about the marketing of health supplements, as some health supplements are aggressively advertised, with some claims that may be excessive. What is HSA s role in regulating the advertisements of health supplements? Under the current regulatory system administered by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA), it is not a statutory requirement to screen or check the advertisements of such products. The advertisements of consumer goods, including health supplements, are governed by the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice, issued by the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS). Although HSA generally does not require health supplement dealers to apply for a permit to advertise their products, they must ensure that their advertisements do not exaggerate the product s functions, such as curing illnesses or diseases. Dealers are also responsible for determining that the claims on their products are accurate and truthful. Why should I be cautious when buying health supplements? There are six reasons why you should exercise caution when assessing claims made for health supplements when considering your purchase: Pg 1 of 6

2 August No pre-market approval or licensing In Singapore, health supplements are not subject to approvals before being sold in the market. Dealers, who include manufacturers, importers, re-packers, wholesalers/distributors and retailers are responsible for the safety and quality of their products. They must ensure that their health supplements do not contain substances controlled under the Poisons Act, and the limits of toxic heavy metals meet legislative requirements. Similarly, in some other countries, health supplements do not always require pre-market approval, or they may be classified differently and are subject to different sets of requirements in accordance with the respective regulatory regimes. 2. No assessment of efficacy Health supplements are usually not assessed on their effectiveness. This is different from western medicines which are subject to rigorous and stringent clinical trials. The benefits of each health supplement are often extrapolated from the usage of known constituents, rather than from clinical trials. The product may or may not exert similar effects to or the combined effects of its individual components. 3. No screening or checks of advertisements In Singapore, advertisements on health supplements are generally not required to be screened or checked by HSA before being published in the mass media and retail outlets. Dealers and advertisers of health supplements are responsible to ensure that the information provided for the advertisement and promotional material is clear, accurate and truthful, and can be substantiated so that consumers can make informed decisions when purchasing and consuming the products. 4. No medicinal claims Misleading claims on health supplements may lead to adverse consequences on the health of consumers. This is unlike western medicines where each medicinal claim is backed up by scientific data and rigorous clinical trials. Health supplements should not make medicinal claims on disease conditions, and any other claims made on the products should be truthful and adequately substantiated by scientific evidence. You are advised to consult your doctor before starting any self-medication with health supplements, particularly if you are already undergoing any medical treatment or if you are unsure if the product can meet your specific health needs. 5. No rapid results The effects of most health supplements are usually slow and often not obvious. Hence, any health supplement that claims to produce rapid results should be viewed with care. You should immediately report to your doctor if you discover any adverse side effects after the consumption of such preparations. 6. Low-risk does not mean no-risk Although health supplements generally contain low-risk and low-potency substances derived from natural sources, this does not mean they are 100% safe or no-risk. Pg 2 of 6

3 August 2009 Generally health supplements available in the market are formulated without in-depth scientific research and lack clinical studies on product safety in prolonged consumption. Taking a combination of supplements or consuming them with other medication can be harmful and even life-threatening. Similarly, an overdose of a health supplement can also cause health problems. Furthermore, some health supplements may not be suitable for certain health or medical conditions. In addition, there are cases in which unscrupulous manufacturers produce health supplements with undeclared or unlabelled potent medicinal ingredients. Taking such products can be extremely harmful and can lead to serious health problems. What can I do as a smart consumer? Here are four tips to help you make informed decisions when purchasing health supplements. Do s PTip 1 Exercise caution for health supplements that are promoted for lifestyle uses The array of health supplements has grown tremendously over the years, and these products are increasingly targeted at lifestyle-related problems. Some of the products are formulated with new ingredients that may lack adequate clinical studies on benefits and long-term safety. Hence, you should exercise care and discretion, especially when starting on such a product. PTip 2 Buy from reliable sources Buy your health supplements from reliable sources like a registered pharmacy or established retail store, and choose products from reputable manufacturers. Avoid buying from sources that you may not be able to hold accountable for any product defects in the future. Avoid purchasing from unknown sources e.g. Internet, street peddlers. Even if a product is recommended by a close friend or relative, be skeptical about results that sound too good to be true. PTip 3 Be cautious of exaggerated claims and over-promises Health supplements may carry exaggerated claims and benefits riding on hype and public expectations since the products may not be backed by relevant scientific data. Claims on data made in the advertisements of health supplements (particularly those promoting slimming effects) to show that the products are clinically tested and scientifically proven - these data often do not adequately support many of the claims made in the advertisements. Pg 3 of 6

4 August 2009 You should be especially cautious with health supplements that promise quick cures and easy solutions to serious problems. In addition, you are advised to spend more time and effort to check out products and available alternatives. Do not buy a health supplement impulsively. PTip 4 When in doubt, don t buy Exercise due care and be responsible for your own health, especially when you are self-medicating. You are reminded that when in doubt, don t buy. You should seek the advice of your doctor if you are unsure of the right products for a particular need. A smart consumer spots dubious health supplement marketing strategies: Be aware that the following information which is often found in dubious marketing strategies, is not easily verifiable: Case clinical histories Complex data/statistics Personal testimonies Statements that claim the endorsement of the government, the medical profession or research scientists Impressive sounding scientific terminology Statements such as Used safely by millions, Proven effective by thousands Proven Traditional Remedies or New Secret formulations No-risk, 100% Safe, Money Back Guaranteed Recommended by Doctors/Pharmacists/Scientists A smart consumer assesses health claims of health supplements: Always add a healthy dose of skepticism when confronted with exaggerated benefits that sound too good to be true. Dubious marketers exist and they often prey on the hopes, fears and anxiety of consumers. It is not uncommon to have unverified positive testimonials and scientific reports, which are usually presented to convince consumers to buy their products. Heath supplements comprising natural ingredients are inherently less potent than synthetic medicinal ingredients. Their effects are often not apparent and may only be seen after prolonged consumption. Hence, any health supplement that claims to act rapidly and effectively should be approached with caution, as some of them may contain undeclared or unlabelled potent medicinal ingredients to enhance the effects. At the very least, they may not meet your expectations, but at the worst, serious side effects may occur, leading to life-threatening conditions in some instances. Pg 4 of 6

5 August 2009 For your benefit, the following lists some exaggerated claims that are likely to be misleading and you should view them with discernment: strengthens your immune system against recurring infections and diseases This is a claim, inconsistent with the purpose of health supplements. You may end up delaying proper medical treatment. burns fat fast, reduces cellulite and helps you to slim quickly Often an exaggerated claim. If the product works, it may be due to the presence of potent ingredients that may be prohibited in health supplements. In such cases, the products may be associated with dangerous side-effects. Consumer discretion must be exercised especially where the slimming products claim that weight can be reduced after a short period of usage. It is advisable to consult a doctor or pharmacist on the appropriate weight loss regime before any self-treatment is attempted. Particularly, consumers who are suffering from diseases, on medication, pregnant or lactating are advised to consult their doctors if they wish to consume any health supplement for slimming purposes. reduces cholesterol effectively and prevents heart diseases Usually, there is no scientific evidence to substantiate this claim. Clinically proven Very often, this statement is misleading because health supplements are not subject to the same standards of clinical studies as required of approved medicines. If the claimed effectiveness of a product has been clinically proven, the product would likely be granted the status of a medicine rather than be sold as a health supplement. Potency guaranteed Potency cannot be guaranteed unless stringent clinical studies have been conducted with the product. As above, if the product has passed clinical tests, it will be granted the status of a medicine. 100% safe No product is 100% safe. Potential problems include allergy, adverse effects on existing ailments and drug-herb interactions. 100% money back guarantee Read the fine print. Often, the conditions for refund are so onerous that it is impossible for you to successfully make a claim. Pg 5 of 6

6 August 2009 For the first few days, you will feel some side effects such as sweating, diarrhoea, rashes, etc. Thereafter, the symptoms will subside as your body becomes adjusted to the product. This product may contain undeclared or unlabelled potent and dangerous substances. Avoid products that give such warnings. Detoxify your body This claim has no scientific basis. Anti-stress or Reduce stress A misleading claim as stress may require medical treatment depending on the underlying cause e.g. environmental and mental factors. In summary, you are advised to always make informed decisions, and exercise careful discretion in your purchases and usage of your health supplements. The information and material in this Consumer Guide is intended only for purposes of public education and general information and should not be considered as a substitute for professional advice from the user's own healthcare professional, such as a doctor or pharmacist. The user should use his or her own discretion in deciding whether the information and material in this Consumer Guide are suitable or appropriate for his or her own purposes. While the Health Sciences Authority has taken reasonable care in ensuring that the information and material in this Consumer Guide is accurate and up to date, it provides no warranty in this regard, and will not be responsible or held liable, whether directly or indirectly, for any damage, injury or loss arising from the use of any information or material from this Consumer Guide. Pg 6 of 6

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