False advertising that leads to illness

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 Alain Vadeboncoeur had been fighting for more than a year to have advertisements using his photo without consent removed. But the fraudulent ads recently reached a new high: a septuagenarian was intoxicated after consuming cannabis jujubes. She was convinced that the “candies” were approved and recommended by the renowned Quebecois doctor.

The woman bought the bear-shaped gummies containing CBD, a compound naturally found in cannabis, after seeing an internet ad earlier this month. The website claimed that the colourful treats relieved chronic pain. Alain Vadeboncoeur’s name and photo were linked to the misleading advertising.

“The woman was very nauseous. She tried a jujube later that night, and she became like a zombie. She was still drowsy the day after,” said David Lussier, a geriatrician. Despite her condition, she was not hospitalized.

Lussier hesitated to share the story with La Presse. But the following week, another patient asked about the use of hemp oil; she had also seen Vadeboncoeur promoting it on the internet.

“Hemp oil is harmless enough, but the woman who ordered the CBD jujubes, she didn’t tolerate them at all. She was very sick,” Lussier said.

“It could have been dangerous because we don’t know what was in the jujubes. It is unknown what the dose of CBD was or if they contained THC. It could have been very, very dangerous,” he added.

Lussier described the “young” woman as “lively” and “bright.” However, some patients who saw their doctor less often during the pandemic are more willing to try new methods to relieve chronic pain, he said. They are more vulnerable if they come across a product whose virtues are touted by a well-known doctor.

“People appreciate Dr. Vadeboncoeur. They find him credible. This is where it gets dangerous. They feel like they are taking his advice when it is completely wrong,“ Lussier said.

Alain Vadeboncoeur has been fighting for the removal of advertisements using his photo since the summer of 2020. The ads glorify diet pills, hemp oil or CBD oil. They appear on the internet for a while, then disappear.

The emergency room doctor received hundreds of messages from internet users about the ads. Some people wonder about a product, others claim to have been duped. Some had the unpleasant surprise of having to pay $300 instead of the advertised $60, Vadeboncoeur said.

But this is the first time he heard of someone getting sick from the fake medications. “Fortunately, nobody died,” he said.

“When buying gummies from a company with fraudulent tendencies, I wouldn’t bet a lot on what’s inside those gummies. They are surely not pharmaceutically approved. It’s risky,” he said. He received a few messages about the gummy bears, but not as many as about weight loss products or hemp oil.

“What kills me is that people who get scammed are vulnerable people looking for a solution to cure a disease. I find it so low,” he said.

Vadeboncoeur posted warnings on social media and media sites. He hired someone to answer his emails related to deceptive ads. He contacted Shopify and Facebook about the ads, among other sites. He even called in an expert to try to find the real identity of the company that usurped his identity, and filed a complaint with the police, without success.

Eugene Oscapella, criminologist and professor at the University of Ottawa, is sure the company faces multiple lawsuits. “There are all kinds of problems with this ad. The doctor could sue in civil proceedings because his photo is being used. The patient could sue because she was deceived. Surely the College of Physicians could find a way to sue too,“ he said.

The company is also liable to criminal prosecution if it “caused a person to administer, or caused a person to take, a poison or other destructive or noxious substance,” according to section 245 of the Criminal Code.

“But that’s in theory. In practice, it can be very difficult if the company does not have a head office in Canada or if it is difficult to identify it,” Oscapella said.

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