[Pastilan] The rise of the new snake oil salesmen in Mindanao

Herbie Gomez

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[Pastilan] The rise of the new snake oil salesmen in Mindanao

Graphic by Alyssa Arizabal

'There are people out there who are making a killing out of dietary supplements, mostly of questionable origins. What used to be fraud now camouflages as alternative medicine.'

A former Bombo Radyo reporter from General Santos City may have stumbled into the holy grail of non-traditional media ownership in the Philippines. 

Elmer Catulpos first struck gold in his twenties when he published a bond paper-sized flyer that carried a few articles and tips on how to win in the lottery. 

Based on a 2015 Mindanews story by journalist Rommel Rebollido, Catulpos’s lowly venture, which cost him a measly P1,000 in 2005, grew into a media empire in just a matter of 10 years. That empire includes a network of 40 FM radio stations as of 2017, tabloids, a television station, and several cable TV channels under what is now known as the Brigada Mass Media Corporation.

He did it not by making traditional mainstream media revenues the lifeblood of the company. How then? By turning his media network into a tool to advertise the products that he sells. These products include herbal food supplements in capsules, cosmetics, and even engine care products, among others, that have been selling like hotcakes in the provinces. 

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That formula enabled him to make his media company non-reliant on third-party advertisements, including those that are political in nature. In this model, the media network serves as a mere sales and marketing arm of his other company, the Brigada Healthline Corporation, which is really the goose that lays the golden eggs. It’s like, “Why should I place an ad when I can build my own media network to do all the sales talk?”

Catulpos is giving other media owners in the provinces a run for their money, especially at this time when traditional mainstream media revenues are at an all-time low. His winning formula, which I find very friendly to the free press at first glance, and his rags-to-riches story are for the books.

I am curious to find out though if Catulpos’s media success story may have encouraged the rise of a modern-day and sophisticated breed of snake oil salesmen. Many of today’s supplement traders have dubious herb-based products, many of which are being passed off as medicine in the provinces.

There are people out there who are making a killing out of dietary supplements, mostly of questionable origins. What used to be fraud now camouflages as alternative medicine. They go unnoticed, and the absurdity of their claims are ignored or escape the prying eyes of government regulators, policymakers, lawmakers, journalists, and even social media fact-checkers.

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I have observed that a number of radio stations in Cagayan de Oro these days have been cashing in on the proliferation of what appears to be pseudoscience in the form of paid advertisements or program sponsorships. I suppose the same thing is happening elsewhere.

In one of the dietary supplement ads (not from Catulpos’s group), for instance, a man in a white coat with a stethoscope urges listeners, “Kaya araw-arawin natin ang pag-inom para maiwasan ang anumang karamdaman.” (Let’s take the supplement every day so that we don’t get sick.)

The ad ends with another voice interjecting: “Pinakamagaling at pinakaepektibo. Wala nang iba!” (This supplement is the best, and the most effective. There is no other!)

The man who made the scientific claim in the ad is a general medicine practitioner who serves – hold your breath! – as a medical director of a hospital in the Caraga region.

In the ad, the physician claims that the supplement strengthens the immune system, and that the product offers almost all the essential vitamins and minerals needed by the body. He also says he has been taking the capsule himself, and recommends it to his patients. Yes, just like prescription meds.
Supposedly, the product can stabilize blood pressure, and can speed up the healing process if taken regularly like maintenance drugs. But where is the science in that assertion?

Being a skeptic, I have a problem with salesmen making unfounded scientific claims about what they sell. And the more I have a problem if such claims come from doctors of medicine. 

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The endorsement was most likely motivated by profit. The product has not been tested in a laboratory, and there is no clear scientific study to show that the supplement does what the doctor claims it does.

It would have been less of an issue if the physician endorsed the herbal capsules as mere supplements to meet people’s daily vitamin and mineral requirements. Yet he made the supplement appear to be so good to the point that he claims it can actually prevent people from getting sick.
A competing group also advertises its herbal capsules and makes the product appear like it is a cure for people with autoimmune diseases, diabetes, prostate and kidney problems, scoliosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and atherosclerosis, among many other diseases. It’s as if the herbal capsule offers a cure for any ailment known to mankind.

Aside from that, the group claims that each capsule contains natural antibiotic and anti-inflammatory ingredients in addition to vitamins A, B2, B3, C, D, Omega 3, zinc, iron, potassium, calcium, and other minerals. All that in a capsule not bigger than the bone at the tip of my pinky finger. And imagine the assertion that the herbal capsules can actually kill cancer cells, and repair damaged organ tissues. I say, wow! If that is not a scientific claim, I don’t know what is.

Another of the ads starts off with a litany of facts about cancer and poor nutrition in order to promote healthy lifestyles, matters no one would dispute. Accompanying the motherhood statements are passionate testimonials from users who supposedly got cured after taking the capsules. 

One woman claims she had a breast cyst, and it was soon gone after she took the capsules. 

Another user, a man, says he would have lost a leg due to diabetes if not for the supplement that promises a cure for a whole range of ailments. 

Then another woman claims to have gone blind as a result of diabetes. She ends it by thanking the heavens for the cure without ever saying that her vision was restored or if she ceased to be a diabetic after she took the supplement.

The ad narrator calls the supplement “the perfect combination” before garnishing it with some religious mumbo jumbo about how herbs with curative properties were created by a merciful deity. But the “only perfect combination” I see was the concoction of pseudoscience, untested claims of being cured, and superstitious gibberish in the ad script.

That group has another product, something for men with erectile dysfunction. It assures that users will rise to the occasion for a period of 24 hours, and they will never tire because the supplement supposedly contains ginseng mixed with other ingredients.

I find this particular ad – this one is posted on YouTube – quite entertaining in a comical way, given the scriptwriter’s ability to make words in Bisaya rhyme as part of the sales pitch. One example: “Sa imong mata’g handus ug sa imong mata’g duot ang misis dili mag aligutgot.” (For every thrust you make, for every push you make, your wife will not grumble.)

The ad effectively makes use of the familiar guitar riffs in Carlos Santana’s “Europa” in the background, and a woman’s moans before a recommendation is put forward for users to take one capsule with warm water 30 minutes before the action. The “prescription” gives it a semblance of authority.

Aside from being packaged as a Viagra-like product, it is also being advertised as a maintenance pill and a cure for a whole range of ailments like Diabetes 2, hypertension, prostate and heart problems, and even depression. Now that’s a red flag.

It wouldn’t be fair to state that the supplement trade is all bad. There have to be products out there that really offer genuine health and nutritional benefits. It’s just that the trade has created an environment conducive to a lot of quackery, scientific disinformation, and scammers who have no qualms about employing deceptive schemes to sell their bogus products.

Any Tom, Dick, and Harry can produce these capsules. All one needs to do is buy a capsule filling board or machine, empty capsules, and dietary supplement powder, all of which can be ordered via online shopping sites.
That these products can be bought in pharmacies, even in the more popular ones, really baffles me. Something is not right here. Pastilan. – Rappler.com

Journalist Herbie Gomez is Rappler’s Mindanao Bureau coordinator. He is based in Cagayan de Oro City.

Voices features opinions from readers of all backgrounds, persuasions, and ages; analyses from advocacy leaders and subject matter experts; and reflections and editorials from Rappler staff. 

You may submit pieces for review to opinion@rappler.com. 

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Herbie Gomez

Herbie Salvosa Gomez is coordinator of Rappler’s bureau in Mindanao, where he has practiced journalism for over three decades. He writes a column called “Pastilan,” after a familiar expression in Cagayan de Oro, tackling issues in the Southern Philippines.