Ageing society

When old is gold for the unscrupulous: the hidden cost of buying a longer life in China

Senior citizens can be a gold mine for sellers of dubious panaceas

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 July, 2017, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 July, 2017, 11:01pm

The small health club on a narrow road in Shanghai’s Baoshan district stands out from the rest of the neighbourhood. Senior citizens mill around the front door, chatting and waiting their turn to sit in one of a dozen elaborate chairs.

The chairs deliver low-voltage electric charges to occupants, and regular customers evangelise about the treatment’s benefits, saying it can remedy anything from itchy skin to insomnia and immune deficiencies. The service is free but the chairs are on sale for 35,000 yuan (US$5,200) each.

The health club attracts hundreds of retirees each day and is one side of the booming business of marketing health products to the country’s ever-greying population – an industry dogged by ­dubious claims and sometimes tragic consequences.

Retired farmer Zhang Honggen, 72, lives on a monthly pension of 2,000 yuan and is one of the regulars at the club. He hasn’t bought one of the chairs but he knows others who have.

“I have come here every morning since February and after sitting in this chair I feel much better than before. I can sleep well now,” Zhang said. “It’s good that I don’t have to pay for it.”

While he is happy to get something for free, Zhang has been stung over the years by unscrupulous salespeople touting products that failed to live up to their ­medicinal claims. He said he had spent more than 20,000 yuan in recent years on powders and pills, nucleic acid capsules and caterpillar fungus tablets. He even bought a “miraculous needle” and an electrical instrument that both purportedly use low-voltage electricity to improve well-being.

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“The salespeople told me their products were amazingly good; but after I bought and used them for a while, I found their products were not so useful,” Zhang said. “When I called them again, they either had a bad attitude or could not be contacted.”

For some elderly people, buying health supplements can ­become an obsession. Earlier this year, the daughter of an 85-year-old retired professor in Shaanxi province called police ­because she could not stop her father buying the products, mainland media reported. She said he had spent hundreds of thousands of yuan on the supplements over the last eight years and his home was full of them.

The police were reportedly able to help recover some of the money but others have not been so fortunate. In March, a 60-year-old man in Qingdao committed suicide after discovering he lost 60,000 yuan by buying health products, exhausting most of his savings, the Peninsula ­Metropolis Daily reported.

Police crackdowns are rare ­because the businesses and products are usually legal. Claims of false advertising also tend to go unpunished – and unproven – ­because victims often don’t collect evidence. A Beijing Municipal Drug Administration official told Caijing magazine that the lack of evidence stymied the authority from effectively overseeing the market.“We can punish only when there is evidence,” he was quoted as saying. “Whether they sell things at a high or low price, or whether they coax you or not is not our business. Many times we can merely alert companies not to engage in false marketing.”

Liu Junhai, a consumer rights researcher from Renmin University, said police would only pursue fraudsters if the activity involved a lot of people and money.

An official from the China Consumers Association said her department had received a flood of complaints from elderly consumers who said they were cheated by sellers of health products. But most of the time the agency could do nothing except remind victims not to get conned again.

Huang Xiulan, 87, a retired psychology professor, knows what it is like to be duped. She spent 400,000 yuan over the years buying various kinds of supplements and equipment that claimed to be good for her health.

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Huang detailed her experience in a book published three years ago, questioning the effectiveness of those products and their exorbitant prices.

The book was a hit but did not dent enthusiasm for the offerings.

In an interview with The Beijing News, Huang said old people were often willing to buy the overpriced products even though they knew they were being taken ­advantage of. She said the salespeople spoke sweetly to her and visited her every day in hospital when she had a stroke. They even washed her underwear, she said. “It’s in contrast to the case at home, where young people barely say a word to old people,” she said.

Zhang, the retired Shanghai farmer, said he was often approached by sales personnel from health product companies who called him or saw him in the park.

“They at first gave me free things, such as free cooking oil or free eggs,” he said.

“They asked me to go to their free health seminars. I wasn’t busy so I went.”

After the seminars, sales staff tried to persuade the elderly participants to buy products.

“The companies chartered buses to take us but if we didn’t buy anything, we had to go back home by ourselves,” he said.

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Zhang said he agreed to buy some products because he was treated well. “They called me ‘uncle’ and chatted with me patiently. They also did things for me, like deliver bottles of mineral-rich water,” he said

Shanghai Jiao Tong University professor Zhang Xiaoyi said the effectiveness of these sales techniques pointed to a crisis in the welfare of senior citizens. “The psychological needs of old people are not being met because their children don’t care for or communicate with them,” Zhang Xiaoyi said. “Those with good communication with the younger generation are not so easily conned.”

Fudan University professor Hu Zhan said older people were willing to spend more on health products because they cared a lot about their health – a point young people didn’t grasp. “Young people like to buy luxury bags while old people like to buy expensive health products,” Hu said.