Health Claims

27 Oct 2009 questionsarchive

I seek leave to make a brief explanation before asking the Minister for Consumer Affairs a question on the subject of potential scams advertised in our newspapers.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: I have become aware of a miraculous book, for which full page advertisements have been published in the Sunday Mail from time to time. The advertisement is headed 'Natural Medicine: How ancient Chinese medicine can help you to drive illness from your body.' The author of the book is a Dr Stephen Chang, who 'shares the secrets of self-healing and of internal exercises which, with very little effort and in no time at all, can be used to drive illness away and keep it away.' The advertisement claims that high blood pressure, constipation, obesity, snoring, allergies, sinus inflammation and prostate problems are just a few of the conditions that can be prevented using these 'internal exercises'. There are endorsements from a number of people—who, curiously, all reside in Europe.

For the sum of $49.95 plus $9.95 postage and handling you not only receive this book but also a book entitled Rub your Stomach Away and one entitled Flush Fat Right Out of your Arteries. I must admit, the claim with which I have a conflict of interest is the one that asserts that you can do without your glasses simply by massaging the region around your eyes for a few minutes a day. My questions are:

1. Is the minister aware of any complaints her office may have received in relation to these advertisements?

2. Are there any remedies that her office can take, either directly through this organisation or through the local newspapers, which are clearly publishing rather fantastic information?

The Hon. G.E. GAGO (Minister for State/Local Government Relations, Minister for the Status of Women, Minister for Consumer Affairs, Minister for Government Enterprises, Minister Assisting the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Energy) (14:39): I thank the honourable member for her question. If only it were that easy to address the wide range of problems that the member outlined with those quick, easy remedies.

The Office of Consumer and Business Affairs provides a wide range of warnings and advice. We have seen an endless list of scams, get-rich-quick schemes, and illegal pyramid schemes over past years. Warnings are usually published by media release, with specific information given at that time through telephone services. We also often do a radio program, where an officer goes on reasonably regularly and does talk-back radio with people phoning in and asking questions. Any current scams we bring to the attention of the public at that time. We publish a range of booklets and other literature as well.

During the 2008-09 reporting period I am advised that OCBA received 1,051 written complaints and reports about scams and received 2,889 counter and telephone inquiries. In relation to the particular advertising the honourable member has mentioned here today, I am not aware that we have had any complaints on that, but I am happy to check it if she gives me further details. I will follow it up and put out whatever notices in terms of warnings that we might have at our fingertips. The number of complaints and inquiries received has fallen by about 18 per cent compared with last year, which may indicate that people's understanding and awareness have improved and that they are more prepared to check out an offer before purchasing. We hope that that reflects the concerted education effort of our officers.

Greater use of email and SMS technology has been a real target for scams recently. Scam and scheme complaints are ongoing through the Office of Consumer and Business Affairs, which regularly works with the ACCC and the Australasian Consumer Fraud Task Force to identify and warn the public of such scams. On 22 September OCBA assisted the ACCC in a national internet sweep day. The exercise targeted promoters of scams aimed at those most vulnerable in tougher economic times. The scanning of internet scams picked up a number of these types of unrealistic offers, including some offering other health cures and benefits that were unfounded. The ACCC assesses that information collected and may delegate some matters to respective states for further investigation, if it believes it is warranted. OCBA continues to use its regular media appearances and its website to promote awareness and explore any initiative that might enhance delivery of the agency's objectives. We continue to receive calls and inquiries and will continue to make people aware.

It is impossible to completely wipe out scams because, as soon as we get on to one type of promotional opportunism and clamp down on it, the next thing we find is some other scam popping up elsewhere. There are limitless opportunities for scammers to take advantage of the public. We try to send out a general message to make people aware and to be cautious. If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Before parting with one's money one should check on the organisation to make sure it is reputable and that the offers are realistic. If anyone has concerns they should ring the Office of Consumer and Business Affairs straight away. Some of it is about general vigilance.

I was pleased to see the report from the Social Development Committee, which dealt with some bogus medical health claims. The committee compiled a very comprehensive report and made some recommendations. I have just recently responded to some of those recommendations that were specifically directed to the Office of Consumer Affairs. So, those responses are on the way.