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Google Bans Ads for Unproven Medical Treatments. Critics Ask: What Took So Long?

Years after ads for unproven medical treatments and therapies spread across the Internet, Google is finally cracking down on them.

The search giant said on Friday that it would prohibit ads promoting experimental medical techniques, like most stem cell and gene therapies, as well as those that have no scientific backing. The ban also includes treatments that are based on scientific findings but are too early in clinical testing for public use.

 “We have seen a rise in bad actors attempting to take advantage of individuals by offering untested, deceptive treatments,” Adrienne Biddings, a policy adviser at Google, wrote in a blog post on Friday. “Often times, these treatments can lead to dangerous health outcomes and we feel they have no place on our platforms.”

The crackdown, which will start in October, comes as health advocacy groups, the public, and government officials continue to pressure online services including Google, YouTube, and Facebook to do more to prevent the spread of health-related disinformation. Some services have been criticized for allowing the spread of anti-vaccine information, spammy health products, and miracle cures. 

Google said its previous healthcare and medicines ads policy already covered topics like anti-vaccine misinformation and miracle cures. The new rule, according to Google, extends the policy to cover scientifically unproven products and services. Google says it’s one of the first companies to introduce this type of rule. It does not apply to ads for licensed clinical trials.

Facebook is still working to better control anti-vaccination information. Earlier this week, it announced that it would roll out pop-up windows that send U.S. Instagram and Facebook users to credible sources of information if they search for or access groups or pages related to vaccines.

While Google may be at the forefront of regulating unproven therapy ads, some argue that the company is late to the game, given the proliferation of clinics peddling fake treatments, and say that there’s no clear indication of how the company will evaluate the medical ads.

“The American Medical Association believes it is critical to distinguish between treatments that have been validated by appropriate scientific study, those that are promising, and those that are without foundation,” Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association, said in an e-mailed statement. “We urge [Google] to make public the process they use to vet advertisements and what evidentiary standard they use for determining which treatments are appropriate to advertise.”

Google would not disclose details about how it would evaluate the ads or how many ads would be removed as a result of the new policy. The company also said is plans to continue to update its policies as the field evolves.

While many medical experts laud the rule's existence, some want to know: What took so long?

The rise of fraudulent stem cell and gene therapy clinics began nearly 10 years ago, mostly driven by unregulated countries, said Sean Morris, chairman of the Society of Stem Cell Research. Those clinics sometimes bought ads targeting U.S. customers for their fake cures. Over time, some were able to open up shop in the U.S. and sell their products domestically. 

“This is a huge problem here,” Morris said. “There are all kinds of companies that have sprung up across the U.S. selling therapies to desperate patients. They’re promising to cure diseases that can’t be cured.”

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it was taking action against “unscrupulous actors” in the field, beginning with two U.S. stem cell clinics. Many in the medical field say the action was long overdue. And because of the delayed response, now hundreds of clinics operate in the U.S., Morris said. 

“That emboldened people,” he said. “These companies are just trying to stay one step ahead of the FDA by altering their claims and slightly changing their products.”

Regarding Google's latest effort, Morris said: "These ads have been present on the Internet for at least 15 years—at least. But better late than never."

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