Diet drug dodges ASA again

2011-06-30 00:00

A BRITISH couple who built their South African empire on discredited hoodia diet products have dodged advertising bosses yet again by launching a new “diet gel” that makes the same claims as their other products, sparking a fraud complaint.

Chris and Jasmine Grindlay’s company, Planet Hoodia, was first hauled before the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in 2008 when medicine consumer activist Dr Harris Steinman complained about the therapeutic claims made about its Hoodia Slender Gel.

The ASA subsequently ruled against Planet Hoodia’s advertising and product claims 13 times and even instructed it to drop the word “hoodia”.

ASA communications manager Corné Koch said they have no evidence that Planet Hoodia complied with their rulings.

“February’s Ad Alert still stands — no ASA member may place Planet Hoodia advertisements before the ASA has notified them to proceed,” said Koch.

Steinman has now lodged a new complaint against Planet Hoodia’s latest offering, “Slimbetti”.

“There is still not a shred of evidence that hoodia can be absorbed through the skin and result in appetite suppression or weight loss,” said Steinman.

“Until this is proven with robust evidence this should be regarded as nothing but a scam,” he added.

Steinman has now also laid a complaint of fraud with the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions, which wrote back saying the matter was receiving attention.

Chris Grindlay confirmed this week that there is no science backing their products, but says they are “herbal and of the best quality”.

Grindlay says they have complied with the ASA rulings over the years by “recalling stock … destroying the old packaging and replacing it with brand-new design boxes”.

“We have taken out all of the claims … regarding our Hoodia-based products,” says Grindlay.

“Our latest Hoodia products have no claims on them,” Grindlay added.

But while old Slender Max — which costs about R350 for gel — and new Slimbetti (about R33) boxes show only the name of the product, the company’s old and new websites still sport the same Hoodia gel testimonials and claims.

One new Slimbetti magazine advert is worded carefully to dodge the most flagrant flaunting of ASA rulings, but still claims the product is effective and safe.

Health Department spokesperson Fidel Habebe said the Medicines Control Council will publish its long-awaited regulations for complementary and alternative medicines, including weight-loss products, at the end of June, with guidelines published for comment in July.

In the absence of regulation products like the Grindlays’ have not had to prove that they are safe or effective and have turned complementary medicines into an industry turning over more than R4 billion per year .

Steinman this month asked the ASA to reprimand Dis-chem for selling unsubstantiated products or else withdraw its slogan, “Pharmacists Who Care”.

The ASA has declined, instead approaching the Self-Medication Manufacturing Association of South Africa (Smasa), a self-regulating body of which Dis-chem is a member and that subscribes to the ASA code and rulings. Smasa executive director Allison Vienings says they are still considering their advice to Dis-chem.

Dis-chem’s group category manager of vitamins and supplements, Craig Fairweather, said they asked Planet Hoodia to change the offending packaging and “will abide by any further MCC ruling”.

Another website that introduces Jasmine Grindlay as life coach, describes how the Grindlays first visited SA in 2001 and “fell in love” with the country so much that they immigrated here and “founded two branches of their UK operations” in 2002.

The Grindlays settled in a R4,5 million home in the posh Cape Town seaside suburb of Llandudno and have sold their products online and through major retail pharmacies.

Chris Grindlay says they founded Planet Hoodia after watching a “BBC television programme on how the Khoisan had used hoodia to suppress their appetite for thousands of years”. He claims they were one of the first companies to export hoodia to the U.S. and boasts “thousands of happy customers who’ve lost up to 50kg each with our Hoodia gel”.

Steinman points out that the BBC programme popularised a myth and that the San used hoodia in raw form for other medicinal reasons and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been acting against companies marketing hoodia.

He says anecdotal evidence is no proof of efficacy and calls for controlled trials before being allowed to raise consumers’ hopes.

In 2008 Unilever abandoned its R197 million hoodia study, aimed at bringing it to market, because it could not prove it effective or safe.

But even if it was, “can Grindlay explain why number P57, the active component of hoodia, has been found in his product?” asks Steinman.

Grindlay declined to respond to detailed questions on Slender Gel and Slimbetti.


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