Quacks of a feather?

How Solal relied on AIDS denialist Anthony Brink

Given that state-sponsored AIDS denialism has come to an end, it seems strange that a major supplement company should invoke the work of the AIDS denialist Anthony Brink. But that is exactly what Solal Technologies has done.

The Charlatan
The Charlatan by Etienne Jeaurat. Source.

There have been two Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rulings in recent weeks against advertising by Solal Technologies. According to our count, there are now seven rulings since 2009 currently in effect against Solal. It is highly unusual for one company to have so many rulings against it.

For a recent history of Solal's claims and rulings against them, see their entry in the Quackbase.

Apart from stacking up the numbers, the two recent rulings also provide fascinating new insights into how Solal goes about their business. I write about it here to offer consumers a sobering perspective on a company they regularly see advertising on the front pages of major newspapers.

Playing the man

In a recent ruling on a complaint against a Solal ”Healthy Fast Food” advertisement, the ASA published some revealing details about how Solal tried to defend their case. As before, Solal seem intent on playing the man rather than arguing the merits of the case. You’ll remember that Quackdown previously reported how Solal threatened legal action against some of their critics – including Professor Roy Jobson and Dr Harris Steinman.

Now, we haven’t seen Solal’s full representation to the ASA in this case, but according to the ruling Solal argued that the Treatment Action Campaign is “vigorously promoting pharmaceutical products”. You may remember that Matthias Rath, one of the worst charlatans to operate in South Africa, made similar claims and was interdicted by the High court in 2006 to prevent him from continuing to do so. Rath was also later interdicted from conducting an unauthorised clinical trial and selling his vitamins as a treatment for AIDS. Solal quotes an affidavit that Anthony Brink, who worked with Rath, submitted in that case. I doubt whether they submitted the judges' rulings.

Here is the relevant section from the ASA ruling:

“…the respondent (Solal) argued that the complainant (Marcus Low) has 'surreptitiously and deceptively' attempted to disguise a competitor complaint by the Treatment Action Campaign (The TAC) as a consumer complaint. This argument is based on the fact that the complainant is a TAC representative who in turn, according to the respondent, is vigorously promoting pharmaceutical products that compete with the respondent. In support of its argument that the TAC have such a commercial interest, it attached a section of an affidavit deposed by Advocate Anthony Brink, an officer of the High Court, in proceedings where he was a respondent in case number 12156105.”

The ASA rejected Solal’s argument.

Brink’s affidavit is filled with misrepresentations and factual errors not worth repeating here. Why Solal chose to use this in a case before the ASA and chose to associate with Brink in this way is baffling.

Just to jot the memory, it was Brink who wrote to the International Criminal Court charging former TAC chairperson Zackie Achmat with genocide. He asked the court to sentence Achmat to:

permanent confinement in a small white steel and concrete cage, bright fluorescent light on all the time to keep an eye on him, his warders putting him out only to work every day in the prison garden to cultivate nutrient-rich vegetables, including when it’s raining, in order for him to repay his debt to society, with the ARVs he claims to take administered daily under close medical watch at the full prescribed dose, morning, noon and night, without interruption, to prevent him faking that he’s being treatment compliant, pushed if necessary down his forced-open gullet with a finger, or, if he bites, kicks and screams too much, dripped into his arm after he’s been restrained on a gurney with cable ties around his ankles, wrists and neck, until he gives up the ghost on them...

Of course, Solal Technologies does not espouse these views, but given the history between TAC and Brink, they must have been aware of who they were turning to in their defence before the ASA. As we previously reported on Quackdown, Solal has in at least two other cases called expert witnesses before the ASA who appeared to question the link between HIV and AIDS. In one case this was expressly noted in the ASA’s ruling. In their response to an earlier Quackdown article, and to their credit, Solal did state that they do not question the link between HIV and AIDS and that patients should not stop taking their antiretrovirals. Even so, as a company they seem almost eager to associate with AIDS denialists.

“A disingenuous approach”

Another interesting aspect of the “Healthy Fast Food” ruling, as well as the ruling on Kevin Charleston’s recent complaint on Solal’s Omega 3 and 6 advertisement, is the lengths Solal goes to avoid arguing the substance of a complaint. Amongst others, they claimed to have had stylometric tests done on my writing, that of Kevin Charleston and that of Harris Steinman and that these tests showed significant similarities. Even if we did copy each others' work --which we did not-- it would be irrelevant. The ASA dismissed this line of argument in an initial ruling on my “Healthy Fast Food” complaint in December last year.

In the new ruling they reiterated, “the respondent's convoluted argument over the bona fides of the complainant holds no water.”

After the December ruling, Solal raised various objections against the ASA’s jurisdiction regarding my complaint and others. Eventually their attorneys advised the ASA that they would approach the relevant Court to interdict the ASA from ruling on my complaint. That clearly hasn’t happened. Solal also argued that my complaint was defective and invalid since the version they had received did not include my contact details and identity or passport number. The ASA noted that this matter had been dealt with in the December ruling (details are removed to protect complainants). They made the following strong statement:

“The Directorate again rejects this disingenuous approach of raising issues that have no relevance purely for the sake of raising issues.”

Two more adverse rulings

When it comes to the actual merits of the two complaints discussed in this article, Solal did not offer much of a defense. In relation to Kevin Charleston’s complaint, the ASA ruled that Solal’s Omega 3 and 6 advertisement is in contravention of Appendix F of the Advertising Code and that it must be withdrawn.

The majority of my complaint was lodged in terms of Appendix A of the Advertising Code. Appendix A was changed significantly between the time I lodged the complaint and the ASA ruling on it. This made most of the complaint irrelevant. I did however ask that Solal offer substantiation for the claim that their product is “prescribed by doctors, recommended by pharmacists”. Solal did not or could not do so. So the ASA ordered Solal to withdraw this claim.

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Comments in chronological order (4 comments)

Rebecca Hodes wrote on 13 July 2011 at 10:38 a.m.:

Bad enough that Solal has invoked the insane arguments of Anthony Brink and others in the company's defense, but why do our pharmacists keep stocking this stuff? Sure there is a profit motive, but many pharmacists are concerned genuinely with the welfare of their clients. Let's talk with them directly about our concerns with these products.

the ling wrote on 13 July 2011 at 4:40 p.m.:

I take your point Hodes but I think most pharmacists will argue that they don't have the resources to perform due diligence on all the products in their stores. Also if your argument was true(that they gave a shat about the use of the products in their stores) then you wouldn't see half the products in there like hair creams, high rise etc etc. There is a lot of dubious stuff sold and the pharmacist has to put his business interest first.

Not disagreeing with you but just saying that they are busy people with a million concerns and I don't think they have the time to look at the value of complementary products as those are ancillary to their core business.

Kevin wrote on 13 July 2011 at 6:17 p.m.:

Good work Marcus. Excellent result on the "Prescribed by ..." tagline; I also complained about that and was glad to see it being upheld.

It is amazing to see the lengths to which Solal's attorneys are going to - in order to try and disqualify the complaint - rather than actually answer the complaint itself.

In the Omega 3/6 complaint they also complained they hadn't been given my personal details; that I also was disguising a competitor complaint (apparently they claim that merely commenting on this website makes me a commercial competitor); and that the evidence I submitted (a scanned copy of the advert) was not surrounded by other newspaper articles and therefore it wasn't from the newspaper I claimed it to be from. I was amused by the ASA's response to that "It is specifically noted that the respondent has not denied that this exact advertisement appeared in in the newspaper".

The other damning line from the ruling: "The respondent has not commented on the merits of the complaint, and has not submitted any evidence that its products accord with full registration and recommendation by the MCC as is required by this appendix".

Solal appear to be limited to playing the man (and the referee) because their advertising does not comply with any of the rules of the game.

Roy wrote on 13 July 2011 at 7:31 p.m.:

You make an excellent point Rebecca. Most pharmacists will also have taken an oath to put patients interests first. Unfortunately, as a result of regulatory failure, not even your local pharmacist can guarantee that certain products they sell (such as the ones in Marcus's blog) contain what they claim to contain (and nothing else), do what they claim to do, or are safe.

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