Patanjali pulled up by the SC: Truth matters in advertising

Since Ayurvedic products are often based on herbal recipes from olden days, their sales rely heavily on reputations drawn from traditional usage and their regulatory oversight focuses on safety checks.
Since Ayurvedic products are often based on herbal recipes from olden days, their sales rely heavily on reputations drawn from traditional usage and their regulatory oversight focuses on safety checks.

Summary

  • The apex court’s hauling up of Patanjali is meant to protect consumers from being misled on cures, but for a scientific understanding of health to prevail, we also need wider public appreciation of how therapeutic claims are best tested.

India’s top court has hauled up Patanjali Ayurved, founded by yoga guru Ramdev, for making misleading claims in advertisements about its products curing diseases. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court served the company and its managing director Acharya Balkrishna contempt notices for defying its restraint orders on such publicity. “[Patanjali] had the courage and guts to come up with this advertisement after the order of this court…. What do you mean by ‘permanent relief’? Is it a cure?" asked the country’s top court when presented with material by the petitioner Indian Medical Association that showed Patanjali had not only continued to advertise untested treatment claims, but also disparaged modern medicine. The court also came down on the government for failing to act against the company. “The entire country is being taken for a ride," it stated. “The words of these advertisements are totally in violation of law." The judiciary barred Patanjali from promoting products on claims of curing diseases and from making public statements against any medical system.

It dealt a blow to the marketing assumptions that Patanjali appears to have made. So far, Ramdev, whose ambitions for this enterprise have included challenging multinationals with local alternatives in sundry consumer markets, has seemed defiant. He had sought to defend the company’s actions while alleging a conspiracy to pull down Ayurveda and his herbal business. With a swelling portfolio of consumables that range from toothpaste and packaged food to items retailed by chemists, Patanjali has been in fierce competition with several market players. Although rivals have protested its methods, a gang-up of global firms against a homegrown success sounds far-fetched. There’s no escaping the fact that Patanjali violated public norms for therapeutic options. The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act of 1954 exists because dubious offerings have long masqueraded as cures. The allopathy system insists that every formulation undergoes the rigours of scientific testing, under strict procedures laid down by drug regulators, just to get approval for specific uses; scandals do afflict this process, but as exceptions, not the norm. To be sure, Patanjali has also claimed to have tested its products for efficacy against the ailments they are aimed at, but these claims have not been validated by any authorized scientific agency. Since Ayurvedic products are often based on herbal recipes from olden days, their sales rely heavily on reputations drawn from traditional usage and their regulatory oversight focuses on safety checks. Their packages saying what general health benefits they broadly aim for should raise no eyebrows, as that’s a matter of intent. Explicit claims on curing a named condition or disease, however, cannot be held as truthful unless we have verified trial data of the kind that covid vaccines were put through.

Any movement that tries to cast doubt on the scientific method, which involves tests that yield the same results when repeated, can be dangerous if people are misled to avoid useful lines of therapy. Mistrust in evidence-based medicine may have been fanned by the high perceived cost of allopathy, but the country must not be saddled with adverse health outcomes as a consequence. The judiciary is doing its job of securing consumers, but we also need wider public appreciation of how science has sensible ways to test various hypotheses for truth. Quackery thrives on demand, so ad restrictions alone can’t achieve much.

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