SARS: Legitimate Sales Or Dangerous Marketing


Leading trade associations in the US have issued a strongly worded statement condemning the promotion of supplements that claim to prevent or cure SARS. But in Hong Kong the industry is actively considering how alternative and traditional Chinese medicine could help combat the problem. And the Chinese government is reportedly experimenting with traditional Chinese medical formulations to find a cure.

The American reticence toward alternative therapies to avert or treat the disease probably stems from a history of unscrupulous marketers exploiting every disease outbreak or bioterrorist threat to sell anything from immune-enhancing supplements to duct tape.

According to the British Medical Journal, the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is no exception and has spawned nearly half a million new SARS-related Web sites.

The US advisory, sponsored by five organisations—the American Herbal Products Association, Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), National Nutritional Foods Association and Utah Natural Products Alliance—states that dietary supplements have not been shown to prevent or treat SARS. It also points out that US law forbids claims that dietary supplements treat or prevent any diseases, including SARS.

The group recommends that US marketers refuse to stock or promote products that claim to prevent or cure SARS.

According to Donna Edenhart, director of public affairs for CHPA, knowing what is acceptable is simple. "We are definitely for anybody that advertises within the parameters of the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act of 1994. We draw the line where the FDA draws the line."

Outside the US, however, it's a different story. Hong Kong's Natural Health Association (NHA) recommends eating food that helps cool down internal body heat, such as congee made of rice, green beans and carrots. Traditional foods that can raise body heat, such as ginseng, antler and dong quai, are off the menu. Vitamin C, zinc and essential fatty acids can all help by strengthening the immune system, according to NHA.

New Zealand-based honey products company Comvita reported that a sudden increase in demand for propolis in Hong Kong is causing its personnel to work overtime. "There's a strong conviction among Asians that propolis has very strong immune-supporting properties," says CEO Graeme Boyd. "This undoubtedly accounts for the upsurge of interest in propolis among Asians—not only overseas but here in New Zealand also."

According to CRN Vice President of Communications Judy Blatman, the SARS scare means the natural products industry should be proactive and take a responsible position. "This is an opportunity to get together and stand as one for the benefit of the industry and the consumer," she said. "There's a fine line between legitimate opportunism and dangerous opportunism and you really don't want to step over it."

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