Our impact: Regulator goes after media ads of unapproved medicines after exposé by accountability journalism

An investigative story by The Fourth Estate which exposed serious lack of adherence to regulatory requirements for the manufacture and advertisement of herbal medicine, has jolted Ghana’s foods and medicines regulator into action. The Foods and Drugs Authority (FDA) has announced that it is clamping down on media houses which advertise unapproved herbal medicine products.

The announcement which is contained in a news report by The Ghanaian Times newspaper was made by the Head of Communications of the FDA, Mrs. Rhoda Appiah. She is reported to have stressed that the media’s gloss over the requirement for persons promoting a non-existent herbal product, MACOFA, to provide evidence of FDA approval as precondition for advertisement, violated the law.

Consequently, all such media houses are liable for sanctioning and, going forward, the FDA will sanction them.

“Pursuant to Section 129 of Act 85, “person(s) who contravene (are) liable to summary conviction or a fine not less than 7500 penalty units and not (less) than 15 years and not more than 25 years im­prisonment or both,” Mrs. Appiah is quoted as telling The Ghanaian Times in an interview.

The MACOFA story

The FDA’s directive follows the publication of ‘Dangerous endorsements: Exposé on herbal medicine advertising in Ghana’ by The Fourth Estate, the MFWA’s accountability journalism project.

An enterprising investigative piece, the story details the Fourth Estate’s test of the rigours of regulation for herbal medicine manufacture, advertisement and sale in Ghana, and its discovery that though there are requisite laws in place, enforcement and adherence are loose.

As part of the general poor adherence to regulation, The Fourth Estate also found out that many media houses fail woefully in their watchdog role of ensuring that herbal medicine promoters do not evade the laws regulating sales.

The story also exposed worrying laxity in the enforcement of laws governing the certification of herbal medicine manufacturers and products, and the fact that these laxities are partly due to negligence on the part of staff at the Traditional Medicine Practice Council – an agency of Ghana’s Ministry of Health mandated to regulate the registration of traditional medicine practitioners and their place of practice.

Enterprising story

‘Dangerous endorsements: Expose on herbal medicine advertising in Ghana’ is the outcome of an enterprising initiative by The Fourth Estate. After observing that media platforms are inundated with advertisements for herbal medicine, a question as to whether all of these herbal medicine brands are approved for sale by the regulatory authorities popped up. The Fourth Estate then decided to test that question.

Reporters, Adwoah Adobea-Owusu and Kwaku Krobea Asante, came up with the idea of admixing three popular soft drinks – Malta Guinness, Coca-Cola and Fanta – and then packaging it as a powerful panacea to a plethora of ailments, from menstrual cramps to impotence. For good measure, the pair named the fake concoction MACOFA, which is an acronym from the names of the soft drinks used in the concoction.

The pair then sought advertisement placements for the fake concoction on major media platforms across the country and got eight such media houses in four different regions which accepted to advertise without demanding an FDA approval certification. Among these media houses was the state-owned newspaper, Daily Graphic.

Meanwhile, as many media houses accepted money and went to town with the supposed unparalleled efficacy of MACOFA, the Fourth Estate approached the Traditional Medicine Practice Council and tested the regulation process there. The team succeeded in registering a non-existent company, Krodwoa Enterprise Limited and a random name, Maxwell Akromah Duah, as the owner of the company.

Big story

As part of the packaging of the story, The Fourth Estate put together a documentary which was first premiered at a forum organized by the MFWA. At this forum, deputy Minister of Health, Mahama Asei Seini, promised that an investigation would be commissioned into the licensure of the non-existent company behind MACOFA and that whoever is found culpable would be sanctioned.

Following the publication of the story, media houses across the country sourced, sampled, or republished it, in whole, on their platforms. They include Globe TV, a channel based in Techiman, in the Bono Region, within the middle belt of Ghana.

Others are The Ghanaian Times, which subsequently did a follow-up interview with the FDA, Myjoyonline, national newswire service, the Ghana News Agency, and ATL FM, a station based in Cape Coast in Ghana’s central region.

The rest are Business News Ghana, Modernghanaonline, and Yen.com which focused its story on the fact that two of Ghana’s biggest media houses participated in the advertisement of the fake herbal concoction without FDA approval.

Meanwhile, the story has re-sensitized media houses to the duty of ensuring that they demand FDA certification before they advertise herbal medicine products.

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