Dáil targets cancer-advert rogues who claim treatment unnecessary

Minister warns against those who ‘easily hide their identity’ online to make ‘fast buck’

The Dáil was told that 30 years ago just three in 10 people survived cancer, but this had since doubled. File photograph: Getty

The Dáil was told that 30 years ago just three in 10 people survived cancer, but this had since doubled. File photograph: Getty

 

Faceless people who “hide behind the internet or social media for personal and criminal gain” are the target of legislation to ban advertisements suggesting medical treatment for cancer is unnecessary.

Minister of State for Health Catherine Byrne has introduced the Treatment of Cancer (Advertising) Bill, drafted by Government backbencher Kate O’Connell, to protect cancer patients and their families from false hope offered by “fix-all treatments and cures”.

The legislation bans advertising that states medical consultation, diagnosis, treatment or surgical operation is unnecessary for the treatment of cancer with a penalty including imprisonment.

Ms Byrne said there was “much public concern about such underhand and nasty attempts to exploit decent people and give them unfulfilled hope that they may recover without going near a professional clinician”.

Those making the claims, particularly through social media and online platforms, aimed to make “a fast buck” and they could “easily hide their identity, leaving cancer patients acting on these offers in a worse place”.

The Minister noted the warning of the Irish Cancer Society that “such dangerous advice leaves them at risk of harmful side effects and even death”.

Ms O’Connell stressed that the Bill did not seek to remove options for patients. She said “the choice will remain for the patient to opt for proven or unproven treatments”.

It was instead aimed at people who “provide, promote, publicise and advertise products of dubious or dangerous composition and efficacy”.

The Dublin Bay South TD said that patient advocates who had battled cancer “have seen at first hand how the legislative void in our laws can be filled by unscrupulous individuals touting falsehoods and dangerous lies to make a quick buck”.

She said that 30 years ago just three in 10 people survived cancer. But this had since doubled. Ms O’Connell, who worked as a pharmacist, said that “one in every two of us will be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetime” and for every person who helped with a diagnosis and assistance “there are others who will see a person as a cash cow to be milked for all the person is worth”.

Will the Bill pass?

Debate has begun in the Dáil on the legislation with backing by both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin for the Bill.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly said it was essentially “about protecting vulnerable people and their families from charlatans”.

But he expressed concern that criminalisation was the first approach as he cited a case two years ago where the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute took a case when a “nutritional therapist was providing nutritional advice on a website and falsely claiming that it could cure cancer. The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland ruled against the therapist and it was shut down.”

Sinn Féin spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly said it was important to note that the Bill “does not attack or ban complementary therapies such as acupuncture, massage or mindfulness when carried out alongside medical treatment”.

She had been contacted by people who thought the legislation was about to outlaw treatments such as massage therapy or acupuncture.

“Many patients find those therapies helpful and useful and find that they have a real and serious benefit,” she said.

Ms O’Reilly highlighted the “nonsense” that “doctors and big pharma” were attempting to cover up that “the cure is out there and if we could simply get past the powers that be, we could get to it”.

The Dublin Fingal TD said “pseudoscience is really harmful”.