As Covid-19 peaks, beware of advertisers peddling false claims regarding the virus

May 03, 2020 08:25 PM IST

Covid-19 has completely changed our lives- I am not just referring to the lockdown , the social distancing, frequent hand washing and sanitizing surfaces and goods. Today, all our conversation is centred around Covid , just as almost all news is Covid-related.

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HT Image

It’s therefore no wonder that advertisers too are trying to somehow link their products directly or indirectly to Covid or the circumstances surrounding it , to make it relevant and attract attention. Some are also using their advertisements for social messaging. But on the flip side, there are also advertisements blatantly peddling products through false or misleading claims related to Covid-19.

One such claim that attracted the most attention was of course the Arihant mattress advertisement in a Gujarati newspaper that went viral on the social media for its claim that the mattress was ‘ corona-resistant’ and ‘anti-corona virus’ !. The mattress maker soon found himself booked under various laws including the Disaster Management Act and the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act by the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration.

Besides those that make blatantly false claims and offer ‘cures’ for Covid -19 , there are also advertisements that employ cleverly worded messages and deceptive visuals to misrepresent the importance or the need for such products to fight the dreaded disease.

Well, there are several laws aimed at curbing such advertising and protecting consumers. . The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements ) Act for example, specifically prohibits such false and misleading advertisements relating to drugs, besides remedies claiming magical or miraculous properties.

The law prescribes as punishment, imprisonment up to six months or fine or both for the first offence and imprisonment up to one year or fine or both for subsequent offence.

False or deceptive advertisements pertaining to food are specifically governed by the Food Safety and Standards (Advertising and Claims) Regulations and enforced by the state food safety officers. Violation of the Regulation attracts a penalty up to Rs 10 lakhs as per Section 53 of the Food Safety and Standards Act.

I must also mention that in response to complaints about Covid-related deceptive and false claims , the union ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) has on April 1, issued an order under Section 33P of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, directing the regulatory authorities in states and union territories to “stop and prevent publicity and advertisement of AYUSH-related claims for Covid-19 in print, television and electronic media and take necessary action against the persons/agencies involved in contravening the relevant legal provisions …”.

The ministry has also asked the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self regulatory body of the advertising industry, to monitor and report such advertisements. The Cable Television Network Regulation Act and Rules also prohibit deceptive advertising. The Rules in fact ban television advertisements that violate the Code for Self Regulation in Advertising , formulated and adopted by ASCI.

The regulatory body- the Central Consumer Protection Authority- envisaged under the Consumer Protection Act of 2019 has wide ranging powers to deal with all deceptive, false advertisements. Unfortunately, the Authority is yet to be constituted. The consumer courts have the power to order withdrawal of such advertisements, direct issuance of corrective advertisements and award costs and compensation to consumers, but only on a complaint from the consumer or the government. Unlike the Authority, the forums have no suo moto powers.

Meanwhile consumers who come across questionable Covid-related claims can complain to the state drug control authorities or the food safety authorities, depending on the nature of the advertisement. They can also register their complaint on the website specifically created by the union ministry of consumer affairs for the purpose—Grievances Against Misleading Advertisements - One can also complain to ASCI on its website- or on their whatsapp number: 7710012345 .

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