LOCAL complementary medicine company Solal Technologies is suing consumer Kevin Charleston for defamation after he wrote an article critical of the firm, which he said promoted pseudoscience.

The row takes place against the backdrop of a long-running industry tussle over what kind of claims are appropriate for sellers of complementary medicines to make about their products. The Medicines Control Council exercises strict oversight over scheduled medicines, but has largely left the complementary medicines industry to its own devices.

Into that grey area have stepped consumers, such as Mr Charleston, who have turned to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to put the brakes on companies they believe to have made unsubstantiated claims about their products.

He said he had laid about two dozen such complaints with the ASA, half of which were against Solal Technologies.

The defamation suit lodged by Solal centres on an article that Mr Charleston published on the website Quackdown, jointly owned by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the Community Media Trust, in which he criticised Solal’s magazine, Health Intelligence.

He said the magazine was "a disguised marketing programme for Solal Technologies, a company that actively promotes pseudoscience and aggressively attempts to shut out valid criticism of its advertising". The article was accompanied by an image of an old advertisement claiming that "asthma cigarettes" could offer relief from asthma, hay fever and bad breath.

Solal issued summons against Mr Charleston in August, demanding damages of R350,000. "He (Mr Charleston) is trying to compare us to tobacco companies who were knowingly selling harmful products. It’s outrageous to suggest we are knowingly selling harmful products," said Solal director Colin Levin.

Mr Charleston would defend himself against Solal’s actions, said his lawyer, Umunyana Rugege, from public interest law centre Section 27.

The TAC said yesterday: "The case — when it comes to court — promises to be an important test of the right to freedom of expression, and the duty of companies to market their products honestly and accurately. Solal Technologies is a company that sells and promotes untested remedies for a range of serious illnesses. "

The TAC said Solal had threatened to sue consumer activist Dr Harris Steinman for defamation and had laid a complaint against him with the Health Professions Council of SA. "It has also threatened to sue Rhodes University professor of pharmacology, Roy Jobson, for defamation. It has sent threatening letters to the TAC, Community Media Trust and the Association for Dietetics in SA ," the TAC said.

Mr Levin said: "It is something that we are busy taking advice on from our attorneys. They have defamed us, they have made statements about us that are not true with the specific intention of damaging our reputation. What do you expect us to do? We are not threatening them, we are exercising our rights in terms of (the) constitution."

Ms Rugege said her client would seek to nip the case in the bud before it started by objecting to the ability of a company to sue an individual for general damages. "We are asking … the court to develop the common law in terms of the constitution and to look at the balance between freedom of expression and the privacy of either party quite differently to how it’s done at the moment," she said.

Solal recently resigned from the Health Products Association (HPA), a body for companies that sell complementary medicines. Mr Levin said Solal had left the HPA on the advice of its lawyers, but declined to elaborate, saying the legal advice was privileged.