15TH ANNUAL CHOICE
10 NOVEMBER 2020
Shonky for Making snake oil look good goes to ... SensaSlim (and friends)
It all started the usual miracle weight loss product way: some positive plugs on prime time current affairs TV, a reference to a clinical trial, an endorsement by a white-coated doctor, a jockey suing for too much weight loss and "testimonials" from satisfied customers all ensuring the SensaSlim Solution weight loss spray raced off the shelves.
But some of the more contentious breaches of the therapeutic goods advertising code caught the eye of Dr Ken Harvey, a public health physician and consumer representative for CHOICE. So he lodged a complaint with the regulatory authority, the TGA's Complaints Resolution Panel (CRP).
Normally the advertiser accepts the inevitable slap on the wrist from the regulator without fuss, ignores the sanctions as much as possible and gets back to business as usual, none the worse for wear. But not this time. SensaSlim decided to sue Ken for defamation.
Due to legislative technicalities, it meant that the CRP couldn't adjudicate on the matter, because it was involved in legal proceedings. This caused no small amount of glee for SensaSlim, who stated in their internal newsletter, "This defamation action, which could be in the courts for a year or two or even longer, basically gives an iron-clad protection that nobody can raise a complaint against SensaSlim to the CRP and hurt us."
But the case became news, and contrary to popular belief, not all publicity is good publicity. Once some journalists started sniffing around, all sorts of interesting and embarrassing stuff emerged.
For example, the Intercontinental Research Institute in Geneva that supposedly did the so-called clinical trial featured images of completely oblivious doctors from the US whose pictures were nicked off the internet.
The clinical trial was apparently fabricated. No, really? The jockey suing for too much weight loss really had lost weight – almost a kilogram in half an hour. All thanks to SensaSlim? Er, no.
Then their own, apparently real, white-coated doctor disassociated himself from the company and the product – for which they're apparently suing him. They also had their advertising approvals cancelled, though they more or less ignored this. Even current affairs TV turned on them, damning the dastardly scammers who were not so long ago weight loss heroes.
In a hearing seeking to freeze the assets of the company, pending ACCC investigations into misleading conduct, it emerged that one of the principals was Peter Foster, who you may remember from previous "ventures" including miracle weight loss tea products, putting money through the washing machine and the Cherie Booth Blair property fiasco. The ACCC has subsequently applied for a 20-year ban on Peter Foster's corporate involvement, and lesser bans for other SensaSlim principals. With assets frozen, the company was placed into receivership.
Some franchisees, who've reportedly paid around $60,000 for distribution rights, got the jitters. They wanted out, and their money back, with class action heroes, Slater and Gordon, coming to their rescue. Meanwhile, an expert witness for the ACCC's case against SensaSlim reported being threatened in relation to the defamation case.
Ken won his defamation case, and was awarded costs – a pyrrhic victory, because SensaSlim can't afford to pay.
However, thanks to a fund raising drive by the Australian Skeptics, his costs have been covered. You'd think by now SensaSlim would have conceded defeat. But no, one of its directors has filed a claim defamation against Ken in a Queensland court. They're also launching a new product, called SensaSlim Slimming Spray, "in a pleasant vanilla flavour". And so the saga of Shonkousity continues.
The TGA, who deserve an honorary Shonky for their role in this, have had ample reason and opportunity to delist the product, ensuring it can no longer be sold in Australia, but have declined to do so. Even after the TGA's advertising Complaints Resolution Panel recommended its delisting due to non-compliance with regulations, they have sat tight and done nothing.