Google accused of profiting from unproven dementia supplement ads

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Google stand accused of cashing in on unproven dementia supplements by selling advertising to retailers of “brain supplements,” flouting the search engine giant’s own advert and promotion policies.

In a Times investigation​, the newspaper found the use of online search terms such as “Alzheimer’s pills” ​and “dementia supplements,”​ directed the user to scientifically unsupported dietary aids.

Google, which has since stopped selling adverts under these dementia-related terms, were criticised by the UK’s Alzheimer's Society who said, “This is not ok. Their 'evidence' is often anecdotal and, in the majority of these cases, there is little or no data to back up their claims.

“Receiving a dementia diagnosis can be devastating, and it’s unacceptable for companies to exploit people who are in a vulnerable position by trying to sell unproven treatments.”

The Society advised the public to “Make sure to always research medication claiming to 'treat' dementia.

Google responded by saying, "We have strict policies that govern the kinds of ads we allow on our platform, and ads for products that offer "miracle cures" for medical ailments are a violation of those policies.

"When we find ads that violate our policies, we remove them."

The UK newspaper described how online search results yielded ads for products that claimed to promote memory, featuring “clinically studied whole-food ingredients”​ such as organic avocado. The supplement in question cost €44 (£38) per month.

Other products included supplements purported to boost cognitive function via a formulation backed up by “over 10,000 scientific studies”​.  Product disclaimers stated it was not intended to treat or prevent any disease.

Nutricia’s Souvenaid

The investigation also found the search terms revealed ads for a product known as Souvenaid, a drink made by Nutricia

In 2017, a trial​ could find no evidence that Souvenaid/Fortasyn Connect could help to prevent or slow Alzheimer's developing in people with early signs of cognitive decline.

However, in 2010, findings of an early-stage 12-week study​ of the same Souvenaid/Fortasyn Connect drink found some changes to verbal recall but, once again, no overall effect on cognitive outcomes.

Nutricia told The Times, “We recommend that Souvenaid is only used on the advice of a qualified healthcare professional, who can advise patients about its suitability for their circumstances.

“We do not advertise this product direct to consumers and we do not advertise it on Google.”

Further criticism came in the newspaper’s editorial​, which accused the multinational company’s technology of “leading us into an ungoverned and potentially ungovernable Wild West, from which some of the richest companies in the world profit enormously while disavowing themselves of any responsibility.”

“Sellers benefit by buying from Google the right to appear when queries about pills or supplements for Alzheimer’s or dementia are typed into the search box,”​ the newspaper said.

“The dishonesty is invisible. Paid-for searches fall under the remit of the Advertising Standards Authority, but a regulator cannot police what it cannot see.”

Developer policy update

In January this year, Google updated its developer policy that blocked apps promoting or selling ‘unapproved substances’ contained in food supplements as part of its drive to encourage responsible innovation.

In the list​​ that applied to Google’s Play division, the list outlined a number of banned supplements and pharmaceuticals as well as products related to weight loss and those that contain anabolic steroids.

The list also banned apps that promoted or sold all products containing ephedra in a move that suggested Google were erring on the side of caution.

In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) joined many other global regulators in concluding the controversial herb ephedra and its extracts were unsafe in food supplements.

Only last week Google were penalised to the tune of €1.49bn (£1.28bn) after exclusivity clauses were written into its advertising contracts with third-party websites which host its search engine.

European authorities said the practice reduced choice for consumers and advertisers by marginalising competitors.

In 2015, Google revealed that one in twenty search queries were health-related, and announced that it would be working with doctors to make sure that reliable information appeared high up in results.

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