How Solal Technologies uses legal threats to stifle legitimate criticism
Published: March 29, 2011, 1:09 p.m., Last updated: March 30, 2011, 8:07 a.m.
Solal Technologies sells supplements that it claims are remedies or prophylactics for a whole range of diseases, including HIV, cancer, hypertension and depression. Naturally, Solal has faced criticism for these claims.
Solal's response has been to instruct their attorneys to send lawyers' letters threatening to sue their critics.
I suspect their intention is to intimidate critics and squash criticism of Solal’s numerous unsubstantiated and misleading advertising claims.
Disclosure: I have recently lodged a number of ASASA complaints against unsubstantiated advertising claims made by Solal Technologies and other companies. All the complaints relating to Solal Technologies are still pending.
Untested or false medicine claims in advertisements are ubiquitous in South Africa. Consumers can complain to the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASASA). But ASASA is overstretched and sometimes takes extraordinarily long to resolve complaints. Also, the advertising code contains several loopholes that charlatans exploit.
Many false and untested claims are in breach of the Medicines Act, but the Law Enforcement Unit (LEU) in the Department of Health does not have sufficient capacity to enforce the act. There is consequently little protection for the public against misleading health claims. It is possible that the Consumer Protection Act might provide more protection against misleading advertising – but it is too early to say.
Against this backdrop of limited law enforcement and industry oversight, it is often left to individual journalists, activists, or members of the public to spot misleading advertisements and report it to ASASA or debunk them in the press or blogs. These people play a crucial role in protecting the public against misinformation and exploitation. It is therefore important that they are encouraged to continue this public service. But one quack company is making a point of trying to discourage them.
Solal Technologies (Pty) Ltd sells supplements that it claims are remedies or prophylactics for a whole range of diseases, including HIV, cancer, hypertension and depression. These claims are often made in expensive adverts on the front pages of large newspapers. For example, the Cape Argus ran one yesterday.
Naturally, Solal has faced criticism for these claims. Harris Steinman has criticised them extensively on his blog, complained to ASASA and reported some of ASASA's findings against Solal on his blog. Roy Jobson has also mentioned Solal on his blog. The Association for Dietetics of South Africa (ADSA) had the temerity to link to one of Steinman's blog entries that criticised Solal.
Solal's response has been to instruct their attorneys to send lawyers' letters threatening to sue Steinman, Jobson and the ADSA. In the letters to Steinman and Jobson, Solal argue that it is defamatory to publish statements arguing that certain of their advertising claims are misleading, unethical, or unsubstantiated. The letters go on to demand that Steinman and Jobson remove all such ‘defamatory’ material from their blogs and refrain from publishing any further ‘defamatory’ statements. Essentially, they are saying “keep quiet, or we’ll sue”. Similarly serious threats were made in a letter to ADSA, but here Solal’s central complaint was that the ADSA newsletter gave more prominent coverage to an ASASA ruling against Solal than it did to a rare ASASA ruling in Solal’s favour.
These defamation threats are clearly spurious. I suspect their intention is to intimidate critics and squash criticism of Solal’s numerous unsubstantiated and misleading advertising claims.
ASASA complaints against Solal's adverts
I am aware of the following complaints that have been lodged with ASASA against Solal – with ASASA mostly ruling against Solal:
Harris Steinman lodged a complaint about a Solal Health Shake advertisement. In October 2009 Solal responded that the advertisement was placed in error and withdrew the advertisement.
The South African Sugar Association lodged a complaint about an advertisement for Solal’s Naturally Sweet product. The advertisement claimed various harmful effects of sugar. The complaint was upheld by ASASA in December 2009. Solal appealed the ruling and was turned down in February 2010, but a second appeal was successful in May 2010. The matter is now awaiting arbitration.
Dr JC Laithwaithe lodged an ASASA complaint against a Solal advertisement that overstated the risk of macular degeneration for South Africans. The complaint was upheld in August 2010.
Kevin Charleston also lodged a complaint against Solal's Claim that one of their vitamin D products can prevent cancer. In February 2011 the complaint was upheld.
I recently lodged two complaints against Solal. Both matters are still before ASASA. A further complaint I submitted on behalf of the Treatment Action Campaign is also still awaiting a ruling.
The vitamin D example above illustrates very well the lack of substantiation common to many Solal advertising claims and warrants a closer look.
On 5 May 2010 Solal ran an advertisement on the front page of Die Burger newspaper. English versions of the advert were run in other publications. It claimed that vitamin D was as effective as the flu vaccine in preventing influenza.
In support of this claim, the advert cited a Japanese study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. However, there are a number of problems with making generalisations based on this study.
First, the 42% relative risk reduction over placebo reported in the study was only found in specific sub-groups of Japanese ten-year-olds. There is no basis for generalising to the average health person based on such a small and unique sample.
Second, and even more crucially, the study only compares vitamin D supplementation with placebo and not with the flu vaccine. It is therefore unclear where Solal get their comparison from. Even if they did cite studies on vaccine efficacy, it would make no sense to compare those much larger trials with this one small trial in Japanese school children.
The claim that vitamin D supplementation is as effective as the flu vaccine is therefore unsubstantiated and misleading. Either the authors of the advertisement have a very poor understanding of how medical evidence works or they are purposefully misrepresenting findings to help sell vitamin D supplements. The same could be said for many of their other advertising claims.
Solal’s questionable expert witnesses
In response to complaints before ASASA, Solal has twice called expert witnesses who appear to question the link between HIV and AIDS.
In the vitamin D/flu vaccine case mentioned above, Solal presented expert evidence from Dr Donald Miller. In their ruling, the ASA wrote “Doctor Miller appears to support the notion that HIV does not cause AIDS”. They also had doubts as to his independence since Miller encouraged readers of his blog to purchase supplements from his wife’s website. The ASA discarded Miller’s expert testimony.
In their first appeal against the ASA ruling on the Naturally Sweet advertisement, Solal presented expert testimony from Dr Neil Burman. Burman is the CEO and “managing physician” of a supplement company called Healthspan Life. Interestingly, Dr Craige Golding of Solal is listed under Healthspan Life’s leadership. The Healthspan Life blog at one point describes AIDS as “a disease which is in fact a sociological problem of nutritional immunodeficiency upon which is superimposed sexual violence as in rape or voluntary recklessness usually against (usually) innocent partners” (sic). Unsurprisingly, the ASA ruled that Burman was also not a credible independent expert.
In response to one of Kevin Charleston's ASASA complaints as well as to one of my complaints, Solal, instead of verifying the accuracy of their claims, submitted an absurd defence to the ASA based on attacking us. They claimed, for example, that “stylometric tests” showed that there was no significant difference between the styles of Charleston, Steinman and myself. Now, I have had some contact with Harris Steinman, but neither Harris nor I even knew who Charleston was at the time. In any case, even if we sat in the same room together working out ways to annoy Solal (which we don't), it would be irrelevant. ASASA rejected this nonsense. Ironically Charleston's ASASA victory resulted in him making contact with us and consequently writing for Quackdown.
Taken together, the legal threats against Solal’s critics, the ASASA rulings against Solal, Solal’s many unsubstantiated claims and the questionable experts Solal has called before ASASA paints a very worrying picture. Consumers have a right to be accurately informed about the products they buy. Unfortunately, it appears that Solal is doing everything in its power to prevent this right from being realised in relation to their products.
Thank you to Faizel Slamang for research on Solal that has been used in this article.
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