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'Misleading' ads: Are our celebrities and public figures acting responsibly?

By Deepika*

It is imperative for celebrities and public figures to act responsibly while endorsing a consumer product, the Supreme Court said as it recently clamped down on misleading advertisements.
"Endorsements by celebrities, influencers and public figures go a long way in promoting products and it is imperative for them to act with responsibility while endorsing any product in the course of advertisement and taking responsibility for the same".
The Supreme Court called upon public figures to act responsibly, but the matter of advertising is not a recent phenomenon even though the Patanjali case might have brought back the discussion to the limelight.
While the concerns around Pan Parag or Pepsi might have caught the mainstream attention in the past, what goes unnoticed and unquestioned are the much more serious issues on medical interventions.
Recently an actress performed a stunt by staging her death, and justified the same by saying that she did this for the sake of raising ‘awareness.’ She was supposedly raising awareness for Cervical cancer which is already on the decline in India without any vaccination programs.
But due to her stunt/subtle advertising many young women, and many mothers shaken by the news of death of a young person from “cervical cancer” panicked booked HPV vaccination shots for themselves or their daughters. That one single day between her death and her resurrection stunt would have boosted the sale of vaccines like no other advertisement would have managed to.
There are many other celebrities who during the past few months have promoted and still promoting the HPV vaccine and one of them happens to be the brand ambassador of one of the HPV vaccine manufacturing companies.
What essentially gets missed out and lost in these advertisements is the mention about the harms that the HPV vaccines can cause. None of these celebrities bother to spell the risks out, or read out the vaccine ingredients for that matter.
None of them mention that cervical cancer is not at all prominent in women below the age of 40 or 45, and that the efficacy of the vaccines are not well studied and questionable. None of these celebrities mention that the vaccinator should disclose the risks and seek consent before administering the vaccines.
In the case of HPV vaccines, one need not go too far in the past to recall that seven tribal girls had died immediately after the HPV vaccine campaigns run in then Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, and controversy followed not only regarding the side effects from the vaccine but with respect to ethical violations of the vaccine trials as well. The HPV vaccine campaign was eventually suspended.
These advertisements are not recent and there is more than one celebrity who have been endorsing vaccines without giving due consideration to the risks that the vaccines carry. These celebrities from the movie and the cricket worlds have been the brand ambassadors of India’s polio eradication campaign as well.
They have been confidently sharing the message that polio eradication has been possible due to vaccines and that every child should get vaccinated, but the polio eradication narrative is far from the truth.
There are documentations available which clearly indicate that the polio vaccine can cause polio, besides causing paralysis and a host of other side effects. Polio has simply been renamed/rebranded to create the illusion of polio eradication.
The same celebrities have also promoted the MR/MMR vaccines and stated on camera that as many doses can be given. This is no science behind this statement but these ads are being played time and again. These celebrities have failed to list the side effects or spell the risks.
Are any of these celebrities be ever going to be individually called out? Will the Supreme Court in any way take cognizance of the whole matter of product endorsement and bring to book all the celebrities who have been promoting drugs or interventions without product information or reading out the package insert details?
Technically, it seems to be possible - Section 4 (b) of The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954 makes it an offence for anyone to assert a false claim for any drug.
While the issues on efficacy/benefits vs risks are being debated, can the Supreme Court at least ensure that these advertisements are pulled off the air?
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*Digital marketing and content management professional with keen interest in public health policies

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