Ads for herbal products in immigrant communities cause concern
Ads touting unproven herbal remedies for serious illnesses fill the airwaves of some immigrant communities in Southern California, and health officials lack the staff to address the issue.
By Erin Loury, Los Angeles Times
Nothing irks Dr. Bichlien Nguyen more than the herbal supplement ads that fill the airwaves of Vietnamese television and radio.
“You’ll have bottle No. 1 that will treat your kidney disease, and bottle No. 2 can treat anything from cancer to high blood pressure to diabetes,” said Nguyen, an oncologist in Fountain Valley. “It’s a mess, it’s really bad.”
Herbal products and dietary supplements do not receive the same testing and regulatory scrutiny that the Food and Drug Administration applies to drugs. And because their claims are unproven, Nguyen says, such ads can not only be misleading, they can also be dangerous. She worries that if people hear that a product can treat or cure cancer with no side effects, they may forego a medically accepted regimen like chemotherapy.
“I wonder how many people have died because they are not getting the appropriate treatment, and they’re trying to use these ‘cures,’” she said.
Nguyen tries to caution consumers during her weekly radio show hosted by the Vietnamese American Cancer Foundation, but she knows she is just one voice amid a deluge of advertisements. “This is a major problem,” she said, “and it’s a big industry.”
Such untested products are especially popular in immigrant communities that have long histories of treating illness with herbs and other traditional approaches. “Many consumers, culturally, are inclined to believe that these remedies work,” said Rigo Reyes, the chief investigator at the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs.
Unregulated supplements must nevertheless carry clear disclaimers on their labels that they are not intended to treat, cure or prevent diseases. But those warnings are only required to appear in English, even if the rest of the label is in a foreign language.
“It makes us cringe to hear advertisements that certain herbs can cure cancer,” said Becky Nguyen, who directs the Vietnamese American Cancer Foundation and is unrelated to the oncologist. “It is a vulnerable population … people who are trying to find hope, find a cure. It’s sad that they’re being taken advantage of.”