Get all your news in one place
100’s of premium titles. One news app. Zero ads. Just $10 per month.

Facebook ads are targeting cancer patients with risky treatments

According to a report from MIT Technology Review, cancer patients are being flooded with ads for unproven treatments on Instagram and Facebook. Dubious ads make assertions about drugs like Apatone, claiming that the treatment “kills” cancer. In order to receive treatment with Apatone — which hasn’t been proven to be more effective in treating cancer than conventional means — the ads suggest patients travel to a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico where the drug is offered for a hefty price.

That clinic, however, is a Mexico-based “community hospital” called Centro Hospitalario Internacional del Pacifico, S.A. (CHIPSA), which has offered unconventional cancer treatment since its inception in 1979. It doesn’t ascribe to conventional medicine, but instead to the century-old theories of Max Gerson, a German doctor who developed “Gerson Therapy” in the 1920s and ‘30s to treat migraines. The regimen is quite extreme: A daily diet of 20 pounds of fruit juice, supplements, and several daily coffee enemas. It’s been deployed as an unproven neuropathic treatment for a slew of other ailments, including cancer.

It just doesn’t work

— There’s one major problem: The regimen has failed time and time again to provide any demonstrable benefit. At its worst, the bizarre diet and onerous enema requirements can cause physical harm. According to one woman’s account, the organization charged her $38,000 for a three-week treatment in Tijuana, and her friends and family’s GoFundMe donations covered the steep tab. MIT Technology Review also identified cancer treatment ads from Verita Life an organization based in Bangkok, Thailand that charges for an unproven hypothermia treatment.

The algorithm isn’t a doctor —

When a patient is so desperate they’d try anything, it seems cruel to make it harder for them to discover some last resort offering hope — but statistics paint a different picture. Eschewing traditional cancer treatment (which, by the way, is booming) in favor of unproven naturopathic regimens is, on average, less successful.

Meta is profiting from a cottage industry that advertises less effective treatments to patients in vulnerable and desperate positions, and cancer patients shouldn’t have to navigate a maze of ads for treatments that, compared to traditional routes, make them more likely to die.

Meta has made efforts to reign in ads for false miracle cures, announcing in 2019 that it would push dubious medial claims down in prominence on user feeds, and its misleading claims policy says it does not allow claims of “cures for incurable diseases.” When MIT Technology Review reported eight misleading cancer treatment ads, spokesperson Mark Ranneberger said that Meta had removed several — but not all — of the problematic ads.