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Sex, lies and advertisements

Manisha Kapoor of ASCI discusses the ongoing issue of violations of the Drugs and Magical Remedies Act in healthcare advertisements. She highlights how the anonymity of the internet contributes to the problem by allowing misleading ads to thrive.

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Manisha Kapoor Asci

A crucial piece of Indian law that controls the promotion of pharmaceuticals and magical cures is the Drugs and Magical Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954 (DMRAA). The DMRAA was enacted to check self-treatment and self-medication of serious disorders and therefore prohibited any public communication and advertisements for 54 conditions ranging from appendicitis and arthritis to fertility, sexual health enhancement, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. In addition, it also specifies that permitted advertisements of drugs and medicines should not be misleading or misrepresent the true character of the products.

 

Consumers, medicine and advertisements have come a long way since then, but unfortunately, the healthcare sector continues to remain very violative of these provisions. Healthcare has emerged for the second year running, as the leading violator in ASCI’s scrutiny of advertising. Violations of the DMRRA feature prominently in this list. From obscure advertisements in local newspapers, such ads have moved to the digital medium. In 2023-24, ASCI escalated over 1200 such advertisements to various regulatory authorities including the Ministry of AYUSH.

 

Many of the violations ASCI sees under DMRAA are for sexual enhancement and fertility products. And many of them are couched in the promise of safety and trust of Ayurveda. Ayurveda has enjoyed trust across the length and breadth of the country and its believers straddle economic and social classes. The common perception is that Ayurvedic products and drugs will not have any side effects and therefore can be consumed safely. Consequently, individuals may be tempted to resort to self-medication or seek alternative remedies, as a primary or supplementary form of healthcare, even if they are unverified or potentially harmful.

 

Another factor to consider is the cultural and social aspects that surround such conditions. While conversations around traditionally taboo topics are opening up, this is still not common. There is hesitation in going to doctors or the formal healthcare system for issues like sexual enhancement. The discourse around male virility forms a core part of masculine identities and therefore admitting any lack of performance or ability in these matters is extremely uncomfortable for most. Similarly, the quest for benefits like an increase in libido, bust enhancement and other similar benefits desired by consumers are not met with credible sources of information or education, leaving consumers vulnerable to the narrative being seized by fake or ineffective drugs. 

 

While the anonymity of the internet is a natural advantage for consumers to seek information and buy products, this is precisely where the vulnerability comes in.  Misleading advertisements take advantage of customers' need for speedy remedies around sexual health. Advertisers exploit fears and cultural conventions to sell products that promise improved sexual performance and vitality.  The affordability of such products makes them highly attractive to consumers looking for quick fixes. The lack of strong regulatory enforcement on digital media allows such advertisements to thrive online in stark violation of the laws.

 

There is an active debate in the healthcare world which argues that laws around sexual health and other areas affected by DMR need to be updated.  An increase in consumer awareness, improvements in medical science, and access to products and information all rapidly change the ways in which healthcare is consumed today and regulation needs to reflect that.  However, misinformation and illegal advertising on healthcare are also rapidly rising. Healthcare content being pushed by influencers, many of whom have no expertise or qualifications is also a very dangerous trend, especially when it comes to self-medication, or popping supplements without adequate understanding. A few months back, ASCI made it mandatory for influencers to mention their education qualification in case they were sharing health advice and endorsing healthcare brands.

 

Education and resources around sexual disorders, and fertility are still not accessible to all and this is the gap that must be filled. This is an important part of the solution. So long as there is a demand for surreptitious products, there will always be someone to fulfil it. Bringing these issues to the forefront, sensitizing healthcare practitioners,  and creating access to quality healthcare are important components that must be addressed even as the debate around the legal framework continues. In the meantime, ASCI will continue to scan e-commerce sites and dubious websites to uncover such products and their advertisements and work with regulatory authorities to have these removed. However, a comprehensive solution is needed to address this issue at the very root. In the land of the Kamasutra, this is perhaps an area that is begging to be set right.

This article is penned by Manisha Kapoor, CEO & Secretary General, ASCI. 

Disclaimer: The article features the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the stance of the publication.

Manisha kapoor DMRAA Drugs and Magical Remedies misleading advertising