The emerging medical cannabis industry is under harsh scrutiny, in spite of the fact that it is gaining legal traction in an increasing amount of states and countries. Most recently, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has filed warning letters to four medical cannabis companies, requesting them to remove information from their websites that has been deemed misleading for consumers.
However, due to the restrictions on what companies are allowed to communicate, newcomers to the use of medical cannabis can feel lost and frustrated over the limited amount of information regarding how best to treat their illness.
Therefore, it is a delicate balancing act to provide consumers with adequate information and unique selling points, without taking it too far and making unsubstantiated claims. If the authorities deem the information provided to be similar to the marketing approach of a medicine in regards to claims, testimonials or social media posts, the company can be accused of illegally marketing an unauthorized medicine. This is a costly sidestep that can be avoided by adding a few guidelines to the corporate communications strategy.
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What is Consumer Protection?
In order to protect consumers from fraudulent or unethical marketing practices, the United Nations have set international guidelines for the protection of consumers from hazards to their health and safety. The same set of guidelines also dictates that the educational needs of the consumers must be met, so they can make informed decisions about their choice of consumption and its subsequent repercussions (such as environmental or health-related consequences).
Consumer protection is therefore the conscious effort of any company to provide the consumer with as much information as they will likely need to make their final decision, without misusing their trust to increase sales or brand awareness through undocumented claims.
This is no easy task, because there is a fine line between providing adequate information on a product (e.g. informing about the research done on a medical cannabis product) and claiming that the product is beneficial for the body (i.e. that the research is indicative of successfully treating an ailment).
Therefore, the avoidance of stating anything as an absolute fact is important, unless there exists conclusive evidence of such claims. Such evidence could be a research study or a scientific paper, but even so, companies should be thoughtful of how they word the argumentation. Based on the examples given by the FDA’s warning letters, words such as “cure”, “healing” or “restore” should be avoided, due to the risk of consumers misinterpreting the message. Even the word “therapeutic” should be used with care, as it relates to medical treatment of diseases and can thereby be misleading.
Why is Consumer Protection Important?
Particularly for the medical cannabis industry, it is important not to mislead our customers and potential consumers. Not only is it unethical, but it can be harmful to the individual brand as well as the industry as a whole.
If companies claim too much – such as a cure for cancer – it mitigates the impact that future scientific research can have. If one company has already claimed and has been proven wrong in discovering a cure for cancer, it might be publicly broadcasted that the industry is lying, to which future research results will be less believable. Thereby, claiming something too soon can undermine future results.
Furthermore, if one customer has been promised a cure for cancer, but does not gain this experience through the use of the given product, the review from that customer will be a poor mention for the brand. This can directly damage future sales, because potential consumers may read the bad review, causing potential harm to the medical cannabis industry.
The wording is a vital focus point for the information given about a product. Phrases such as “treatment for various illnesses” and “attacks cancer cells” have been deemed delusory by the FDA, as it might give patients false hope.
False hope is the last thing a company should provide. Therefore, even if the evidence is plentiful and thorough, medical cannabis companies should always remember that the effects of cannabinoids are always individual; some people experience all the effects (both positive and negative), some only feel the side effects and a few see no change at all. The individual customer must feel informed about all the effects: both the good, the bad and the disappointing.
Localizing the Information through Consumer Focus
These and other expectations represent an increasing pressure on modern companies in any industry to fulfil the consumers’ needs in more than just the traditional sense: while companies need to understand its customers’ desires to consume, it is also important to communicate the ways that products meet these needs.
But it is not only the international guidelines that affect the wording of companies’ content; also local and regional laws have an impact. For example, companies operating within the EU are required to follow both the regional laws of the EU and the local laws of the individual country. This requires an in-depth understanding of local markets and their regulatory framework.
For most countries and international collaborations, an authorization is required for the marketing of medicines. Therefore, any claims that appear similar to the marketing efforts for a medicine can be misleading for the consumer and thereby illegal.
A consumer focus is therefore the best way to ensure the correct wording: if the communicator is able to identify the needs and desires of the consumer segment the company wishes to service, it is also possible to identify how the consumer might misinterpret the information. If a cancer patient is looking for relief, any claims on the curative abilities of cannabinoids can be considered misleading. Similar is a patient who reads about the therapeutic evidence provided by scientists.
The best way to keep the consumer informed, while also upholding local laws and facilitating sales, is to analyze the doubts of the customer and address them head-on. By explaining both the best- and worst-case scenarios, the customer will be well-informed on the various possibilities and risks involved with the use of medical cannabis and the authorities are thereby less likely to deem the information misleading.
How to Avoid the Pitfalls
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), advertising may not mislead consumers by providing false information or unsubstantiated claims.
False information, or fake news, is a negative trend of the internet that gained a lot of attention the past few years. With the internet of things being the main source of news and knowledge, the focus on filtering information is now a vital factor in the communicator’s arsenal of skills. This is the best way to ensure that any claims on the website have clear sources.
However, the main thing to think about is the consumer and the avoidance of giving them false hope – something even worse than false news. Therefore, it is important to be clear on the research and communications practices on which the company wishes to operate and thereby provide a clear set of guidelines for its communications staff, in order to collectively avoid any legal troubles.
Here, we have gathered five guidelines that are useful in any strategy to avoid legal repercussions:
- Always keep the consumer in mind – the communicator must always consider, how the reader might interpret (or misinterpret) a piece of information and therefore the focus of any text should be the end-user and their perceptive level. A useful tool is to divide information into need-to-know and nice-to-know. Furthermore, by understanding the warning signs that consumers look for when browsing, negative trigger words can be avoided.
- Avoid claims – it is important to always refer to a reliable source, but it is even more important to remember the target audience: most consumers are not able to (or have any desire to) leaf through a lengthy, scientific study, which puts additional pressure on the company to provide a factual summary. This can lead to claims that, despite their legitimate source, can be misinterpreted by the consumer. Therefore, it is important to take individual factors into consideration and remember that not all consumers react the same to medical cannabis products
- Create clear corporate guidelines – a clear set of rules of how to use information, refer to sources and remain sound and logical can become a very useful tool. This way, all employees – from PR to customer service – are aware of the information they are allowed to provide and how to take precautions, for example through disclaimers. A clear set of guidelines are also perfect for defining formalities, such as text or email layout, font, file format, etc.
- Be proactive – it is not possible to control all layers of communication about a company’s brand. With social media, the availability of customer reviews and forum mentions is impossible to keep track of, which is why the company must take a proactive step. Such a step could be a disclaimer on the company website that describes the discrepancies in medical cannabis patients’ experiences: both the good, the bad and the disappointing.
- When in doubt, leave it out – it is an old saying that still applies: if a fact or a source is dubious, it is always better to leave it out (or save it for later review) than make a risky claim that can get the company in legal troubles.