Why is Dis-Chem promoting Patrick Holford?

An open letter by the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society to the CEO of Dis-chem

A few weeks ago, Dis-Chem, one of the largest pharmacy chains in South Africa, hosted Patrick Holford. Holford has made a career out of making unsubstantiated and false claims about the benefits of vitamins. 

The Southern African HIV Clinicians Society and the TAC have sent an open letter to the CEO of Dis-Chem, Ivan Saltzman. In it they ask him why his company, which is trusted by the public to provide evidence-based sound medical advice, hosted Holford.

Dis-chem logo
Do they really care? Then why host an infamous quack who deceives people?

Mr. Ivan Saltzman
CEO, Dis-Chem Pharmacies

25 March 2011

Dear Mr. Saltzman


It has come to our attention that between 18 February and 1 March Dis-Chem hosted the South African leg of Patrick Holford’s Feel Good Factor Roadshow.

Concerns about Mr. Holford’s credibility as a spokesperson on health issues have been raised publicly on many occasions. Here are just a few examples. Our sources are a statement by the Coalition Against Fraudulent Claims About Medicines on 1 March 2007 (http://www.tac.org.za/community/node/2168) and the website Holford Watch (www.holfordwatch.info):

  • Mr Holford wrote that "AZT, the first prescribable anti-HIV drug, is potentially harmful and proving less effective than vitamin C". This is false. At best vitamin supplementation in some groups of people might marginally slow progression from HIV infection to AIDS; the evidence is conflicting. But well conducted clinical trials show unequivocally that combination antiretroviral treatments, including AZT, restore the health of people with HIV.

  • Mr Holford claimed that it was highly likely that vitamin C would be effective against avian influenza if the dose was high enough. There is no evidence to support this claim.

  • Mr Holford claims that high-dose vitamin C and D supplementation reduces the risk of cancer. There is no evidence for this. On the contrary, a very large Cochrane review of vitamin C supplementation found no evidence of benefit.

  • As explained on Holford Watch, “Holford has actually recommended a range of healthcare modalities that do not just lack any good evidence of efficacy, but – given our current understanding of the laws of physics – lack any feasible mechanism of action. For example, he has promoted health dowsing and applied kinesiology; he has written positively about homoeopathic alternatives to vaccination and has promoted and sold theQLink pendant.”

  • Mr. Holford works for a supplement pill company called Biocare and is Chief Executive of Food for the Brain, a charity funded by a number of supplement pill companies. Given his vested interests in selling vitamin supplements his advice is unlikely to be independent and credible.

  • Mr. Holford does not have any accredited degree-level or postgraduate degree-level qualifications in nutrition. His only university qualification is a BSc in Psychology from York. This is inconsistent with him promoting himself as a highly qualified expert in the field of nutrition.

Consumers place their trust in pharmacies such as Dis-Chem to provide them with reliable healthcare recommendations and evidence-based treatments. Pharmacists are understood to be credible healthcare professionals, whose recommendations are well substantiated. Given that many people rely on pharmacies to provide them with credible healthcare advice and rigorously tested medication, it is important that pharmacies live up to these expectations.

We therefore ask you if inviting Mr Holford to speak on a Dis-Chem platform is consistent with providing evidence-based information to the clients of Dis-Chem pharmacies?

Yours Sincerely,

Professor Francois Venter (President) 

Dr Moeketsi Mathe (Executive Committee member)

Dr Francesca Conradie (Executive Committee member)

Dr Graeme Meintjes (Executive Committee member)

Dr Sizake Maweya (Executive Committee member)

Dr Francesca Conradie (Executive Committee member)

Professor Linda-Gail Bekker (Executive Committee member)

Professor Yunus Moosa (Executive Committee member)

Dr Eric Hefer (Executive Committee member)

Professor Mark Cotton (Executive Committee member)

Professor Gary Maartens (Executive Committee member)

on behalf of the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society

Nathan Geffen, Treasurer Treatment Action Campaign

on behalf of the Treatment Action Campaign

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Comments in chronological order (15 comments)

Angela Meadon wrote on 27 March 2011 at 9:52 a.m.:

This is superb! Well done! I hope that Dis-Chem responds.

Michael Meadon wrote on 27 March 2011 at 10:35 a.m.:

Excellent indeed.

Although we should note Dischem DOES sell a lot of quack remedies. Hosting Holford is not out of character, alas.

Nathan Geffen wrote on 27 March 2011 at 11:47 a.m.:

Michael, that's a good point. Not just Dis-Chem, but virtually every pharmacy. I've had some discussion with colleagues about this recently and a few questions arise:

  1. Has the problem of pharmacies promoting quackery got worse in recent years?

  2. If so, is it related to the dispensing fee mechanism which reduces their profit on prescription medicines?

  3. If the answer to the above is yes, then the problem of increased quackery in your local pharmacy is a side-effect of lower prescription drug prices. If this is the case, reducing quackery in pharmacies will be hard.

I'm really not sure what the answers are to any of the above, but it's worth looking into.

Nathan Geffen wrote on 27 March 2011 at 11:51 a.m.:

Incidentally, this is the URL of the Dis-Chem advert for Holford:


Kevin Charleston wrote on 27 March 2011 at 12:25 p.m.:

Great work again Nathan.

I agree that pharmacies and quackery has increased significantly over the past few years since the implementation of the dispensing fee - but I think it is more complex than that.

Does the fact the government embraces quackery through traditional medicine and the after-effect of the Thabo-'n-Manto-show not also play a role?

Natalie Victor wrote on 28 March 2011 at 11:53 a.m.:

It will be interesting how the Holford products will fare in the midst of the new consumer act! I think this will be a great platform to come down on products/companies/promoters like these! Waiting in anticipation for Dischem's response!

Michael Meadon wrote on 28 March 2011 at 12:11 p.m.:

Nathan: I think the solution is proper control via the MCC. At a minimum, all products should be tested for safety. An outright ban of products that aren't effective will probably drive them underground, so perhaps a combination of a "sin tax" and proper labeling is best.

Nathan Geffen wrote on 28 March 2011 at 12:25 p.m.:

@Angela: If Dis-Chem responds, we'll definitely put their response on this site.

@Natalie: We hope sometime in the near future to publish a simple article or two explaining the Consumer Protection Act. Indeed, it will hopefully be a powerful tool against quackery.

@Michael. I agree with you. If the MCC/DOH is going to effectively implement the law, the Department of Health's Law Enforcement Unit needs to be strengthened. I've dealt with them in the past and they are dedicated people, but there are just too few of them with not enough resources to make a real dent into the problem. The Medicines Act is breached regularly and yet very few people are successfully prosecuted under it.

Michael Meadon wrote on 29 March 2011 at 9:40 a.m.:

Nathan: what can ordinary people / NGOs do to help enforce the Medicines Act? Maybe a post like your ASA guide is in order?

Nathan Geffen wrote on 29 March 2011 at 9:49 a.m.:

Good idea. Definitely worth doing.

It's hard though; we've had lots of success with the ASA and hardly any with the Law Enforcement Unit (LEU) of the Department of Health, the unit responsible for enforcing the Medicines Act. So while my ASA article was based on successful experiences, this article would be based on a litany of failures!

For example, TAC lodged a complaint several years ago (2008, I think) with the LEU on Ubhejane. We occasionally send a follow-up letter but nothing substantive has been done by the LEU.

The Consumer Protection Act might offer new opportunities too.

Michael Meadon wrote on 29 March 2011 at 9:42 p.m.:

Well, drawing attention to LEU's lack of action may do some good nonetheless.

And, yes. The CPA is going to be BIG for us quackery-smackers.

Harris wrote on 30 March 2011 at 11:32 a.m.:

This is only one aspect of Dis-Chem. They are stocking and selling products that have had severe sanctions imposed on by the Advertising Standards (ASA) for not being able to prove efficacy. Dis-Chem also markets a very expensive "food intolerance" test, not only ruled against by the ASA, but regarded as worthless by every major allergy organisation throughout the world, including South Africa.

I spoke to, and followed up by sending a copy of the ASA ruling to one of the VIPs at head-office (Jeanette), but clearly they do not care.

In other words, ASA rulings have no influence on their "right" to make profit from consumers. And considering that this company has pharmacists on board, makes you wonder about the quality of their qualifications, or understanding of evidence-based proof of efficacy and safety of products processes required to evaluate health claims. Is this also about ethics and deficient morals?

Beverley Lyons wrote on 30 March 2011 at 3:57 p.m.:

Wow. Interesting. Who would have thought. It's all about the money...

Harris wrote on 31 March 2011 at 11:04 a.m.:

Following my posting above regarding Dis-Chem ignoring my email dated 8 February, I received a response today 31/03/2011 10:01 stating: "We appreciate your concern relating to the Hoodia Slender Gel. We are currently investigating the matter with the supplier concerned and have requested a detailed response to your claims as well as all the necessary documentation. Based on this information we can make a better assessment of the concerns raised and how to proceed."

Liezel wrote on 25 April 2011 at 8:54 a.m.:

I do not agree, I am supporting Holfords' knowledge and his contribution to alternative medicine. Although all of we need some of the real drugs sometime in you life there is no problem knowing that a nutional lifestyle will be a booster in life keeping you away from other medical drugs.

We can follow Holfords' advice merely to strengthen our bodies and decrease the risk of getting sick and therefor avoiding drugs with all of its side effects.

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