Live till 100 for just $12,000: Chinese health centre investigated over claims of false advertising

The health centre is accused of luring elderly people with the offer of free eggs and noodle products.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

A chain of health and wellness centres in eastern China is under investigation on suspicion of using misleading marketing tactics to sell its services to senior citizens, the latest in a string of alleged fraud cases in the elderly health care sector.

The market supervision bureau in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, said it was looking into allegations that centres operating under the Heshengtang brand name had made false claims about the health benefits of their products, including selling an "American injection" for 60,000 yuan (S$12,000) that guaranteed a longer life, according to a report on Saturday by local radio broadcaster Voice of Zhejiang.

"Based on our investigation, the products being sold are from official manufacturers, but during the sales process the pricing may have been inflated and false advertising of the medical benefits used," inspection team leader Gong Weiwei was quoted as saying.

One customer said he had spent about 100,000 yuan on the centre's products over the past year, including the longevity injection, which he was told would allow him to "live until he was 100 without any illness", the report said.

The man said that many elderly people were lured to the centre, which has four outlets in the city, by the offer of free eggs and noodle products.

Others said they were drawn into "health consumption traps", with a woman in her sixties, identified by her surname Gong, saying she had spent more than 300,000 yuan on health products over the past six years.

The Yiwu government said that since the start of the year it had handled 67 cases involving allegations of false advertising, and that fines totalling 900,000 yuan had been issued over the past two years.

In Zhejiang as a whole, regulators have inspected more than 17,000 businesses over the past two years, found 731 violations and issued over 9.5 million yuan in fines and penalties, the report said.

In a bid to improve oversight in the health care sector, China updated its advertising law in 2015. Since then all adverts for medical services, drugs and related equipment have been banned from carrying guarantees of efficacy or safety.

Promotional materials must not include "false or misleading content" or seek to "deceive or mislead consumers".

China's population is ageing rapidly, with the proportion of citizens aged over 60 forecast to grow to about 25 per cent by 2030. According to figures from WeChat - the country's most popular social media app - more than 43 per cent of its users who said they had been victims of false advertising online were aged 50 or older, Xinhua reported in October.

Authorities in Yiwu said they faced an uphill struggle in the fight against false advertising as its perpetrators were experts in concealing their wrongdoings. However, they said they were working on a new mechanism to monitor the situation and had drawn up a black list to help stop repeat offenders.

In January, the Zhejiang government launched a six-month campaign to tackle fraud in the health care products sector.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.