Chinese Solution to Quack Medicine: Social Media

Paul A. Bischoff


August 22, 2013

In This Article

False Medical Advertisements in China

"This is guerilla warfare." That's how Dr. Stanley Li, founder of the Chinese medical Website, described his fight against false medical advertisements (FMAs). Li says these fake treatments and medicines are a serious problem in China because they delay professional diagnosis and treatment of serious diseases and other medical problems. They are advertised in newspapers, on TV, and online. In one famous case that brought the issue to light, a 32-year-old woman died of lupus after taking ineffective and fake drugs advertised in an ad. Professional treatment of lupus can be effective in most cases.

During his recent TEDx talk in Beijing, Li showed examples of medicines that were claimed to remedy any number of ailments. For medical professionals like Li, they are easy to spot as fakes: tea, socks, wristbands, herbal pills, and pillows that cure hypertension, diabetes, and cancer, among many other things. Li says these advertisements use "many superstitions, exaggerations, or abuse of expert names -- even those of Nobel Prize winners."

The claims might seem ridiculous, but Li says 15 -30 million Chinese buy products advertised in FMAs every year. Of the 300-400 billion RMB (~$50 billion) spent on medical advertising every year in China, he estimates that about 60 billion RMB ($10 billion) is for fake treatments. These ads often prey on the elderly. Every medical advertisement requires a license number in the ad, but Li says they often shrink the number to a font so small it can barely be made out. "It is very hard to distinguish, especially for senior Chinese people," says Li. Many FMAs don't even look like advertisements, rather posing as news stories.

Every so often, the government states it will crack down on the hundreds of companies that use FMAs, but Li says the punishment is often no more than a small fine and a wag of the finger. By the end of 2012, some 534 traditional Chinese medical institutions had been warned and fined, and 324 suspended from practice. Only 13 had their licenses revoked.


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