The Homeopaths and the Advertising Standards Authority

It is now the end of the Nightingale Collaboration’s first month of operation. This newly formed organization was set up to “challenge misleading claims in healthcare advertising”. In particular, TNC is focusing on the bizarre world of Pseudoscientific and Superstitious Medicine: an area that appears to get away with the most ludicrous health claims with little attention from any authority.

In its first month, the Nightingale Collaboration asked people to report homeopaths who are making unsubstantiated claims to the Advertising Standards Authority. It would appear that each month, the group wishes to focus on a particular problem with the sector. The homeopaths were first.

And it would appear that this campaign is likely to have far reaching consequences. Indeed, I will argue that it looks like this simple campaign could severely constrain the ability for quacks of all varieties to advertise their misleading claims on the web, without facing very serious consequences. However, we are likely to see huge battles in the short term.

So, what has happened?

The ASA received over a hundred and fifty complaints about over a hundred homeopath’s websites. This, no doubt, has caused a huge amount of work for the ASA in their first month where they now have taken responsibility for monitoring online advertisements.

I made a single complaint about a homeopath making a claim advertising a telephone number on twitter. I was rather hoping to be the first person to instigate a complaint against an advert on twitter. Sadly, I will have to wait. The ASA responded to me saying,

We are seeking to enforce compliance with the Code even-handedly across the sector by contacting all of the advertisers we have received complaints about as well as the bodies that represent homeopaths and homeopathy in the UK.  We will be explaining the Code’s requirements, giving advice on how to ensure advertising claims do not breach the Code, and asking advertisers to remove any claims which do not comply.

The ASA will not be publishing individual adjudications on this occasion.

This is something of a shame as news of the new remit of the ASA has been around for many months and the homeopaths have had plenty of time to adjust. The ASA go on,

We will however publish specific, up-to-date advice to the industry and its representative bodies in due course and we will work with them to ensure that advertising for homeopathy is compliant with the Code.

The Society of Homeopaths, the largest membership body in the UK, published its own press release in response to this notice.

The Society of Homeopaths today welcomes the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) announcement that it is to set up a project to look into the evidence base for the efficacy of homeopathic medicine. The Society, the UK’s largest regulator of homeopaths, is looking forward to working with the ASA and will be submitting the well established and growing body of research evidence that shows homeopathy to be a safe, clinically-effective and cost-effective option.

Meanwhile, the Society were busily telling their members something else,

We know that there are orchestrated campaigns, organised by sceptic groups like the Nightingale Collaboration, encouraging people to complain about homeopaths’ websites to the ASA, Trading Standards and to the various homeopathy registers. The Society is seeking legal advice to support us in discussions with the ASA to make sure that we can advise members accurately and also that the ASA responds reasonably and is consistent in how it implements the Code of Advertising Practice (CAP).

The Society tells its members,

For many homeopaths, this means removing named conditions, patient testimonials, the words ‘treat’ and ‘cure’” from your website and any other advertising materials.

This is something of a surprising statement, as the Society of Homeopaths is quite clear about its members’ obligations in its Code Of Ethics:

Professional advertising must be factual and not seek to mislead or deceive, or make unrealistic or extravagant claims. Advertising may indicate special interests but must not make claims of superiority or disparage professional colleagues or other professionals. No promise of cure, either implicit or explicit, should be made of any named disease.

The Society of Homeopaths is merely asking its members to comply with its own code of ethics.

However, this blog has been documenting how this code is a sham and never enforced. It would appear that it has taken the ASA to make the Society tell its members to comply with the code of ethics they have signed up to.  Not surprisingly, the Society then go on to undermine themselves by saying that members can make claims if they reference research,

If you think you can make a good case for any research and are prepared to justify it to the ASA if a complaint is made, include it, and let us know the outcome. Although we know sceptics are challenging this, some members list books on homeopathy or include links to homeopathy books on websites such as Amazon.

Now, problems really began last week when the homeopathic one hundred started receiving notices from the ASA saying that they had received a complaint against them.

This letter was pretty hard hitting, but somewhat forgiving to the homeopaths. The ASA explain that,

We know that many web-based advertisers may not be aware of the ASA or its Code
and we are also aware that this letter may for some have come out of the blue.

This is simply untrue. Homeopaths most definitely should have been aware of the Advertising Code as the two largest membership organizations make explicit reference to it in their Code of Ethics that they ask homeopaths to sign up to.

The Society of Homeopaths require members to ensure that “All advertising must be published in a way that conforms to the law and to (the guidance issued in the British Code of Advertising Practice)”. The Alliance of Registered Homeopaths also say “All advertising must be published in a way that conforms to the law and to the guidance issued in the British Code of Advertising Practice.”

So, the public has a right to expect that when they visit a homeopath who is a registered member of one of these organizations that their advertisements would be in compliance with the CAP rules.

The ASA then tell the homeopaths,

The ASA has an established position on claims that can be made, and those claims that are not likely to be acceptable for homeopathy, based on the requirements set out in our Code and previous ASA adjudications. We accept that homeopathy might make some people feel better in some situations, however the Code requires all marketers to hold objective substantiation to prove any claims they make. Because the ASA has not seen reliable evidence to substantiate claims for the efficacy of homeopathy in relation to maintaining or improving health, you will need to remove any such claims from your website.

You must remove any content from your website that claims directly or indirectly that homeopathy and homeopathic products can diagnose/treat/help health conditions. This applies to claims made by both lay and medically trained homeopaths advertising their service and/or products. Please note that any reference to health professionals in the Code refers to those that are recognised within the Health Care Professions and therefore excludes homeopaths.

This was sure to be a massive shock to them. The ASA says it is giving three months for the necessary removals to take place and that they will revisit the sites, on the 1st of July, and take action against any non-compliant homeopath.

What is worse, the ASA appear to have changed their mind on conducting a review with the Homeopathic Organisations,

Those advertisers who are familiar with the ASA may want to know why, in this case, we are not inviting them to submit evidence to substantiate the claims complained about. This is because, to date, the ASA has not seen robust scientific evidence to support claims that imply homeopathy is proven for treating any specific health condition. We have seen the most recent, authoritative and comprehensive review of the scientific evidence by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee entitled “Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy”. This provided an analysis of evidence and opinion submitted by a range of proponents and opponents of homeopathy, including some of the organisations representing homeopathy in the UK and practising homeopaths. The conclusion made clear that there was a lack of objective scientific evidence to substantiate the efficacy of homeopathy. Because the documents submitted for the “Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy” report provided a comprehensive collection of data for assessment, and homeopaths and the various bodies that represent them were invited to submit evidence as part of a consultation process, we do not intend to duplicate that process or assess the evidence again. We know that some studies suggest a positive effect from homeopathy; however, we understand that the evidence, when taken as a whole, does not support the conclusion that homeopathy in and of itself is proven to help or treat health conditions.

This will be a body blow to the homeopaths as the House of Commons report was not just damning about homeopathy, but damning about the way homeopaths treat evidence. The report stated:

We regret that advocates of homeopathy, including in their submissions to our inquiry, choose to rely on, and promulgate, selective approaches to the treatment of the evidence base as this risks confusing or misleading the public, the media and policy-makers.

The ASA would be entirely justified on not engaging with bodies such as the Society of Homeopaths or the Faculty of Homeopaths as they cannot be trusted to take a dispassionate view of the evidence base.

So, how have the Society of Homeopaths responded to this?

Not well. They have informed their members,

On the 11th March we were told that:

“the ASA has decided to look into claims for homeopathy as a whole. A focus of that project will be to consider evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy and we will be giving the industry an opportunity to submit for assessment any clinical evidence it holds.”

The ASA now appear to have retreated from that statement and have accepted the findings of the House of Commons Science and Technology Homeopathy Evidence Check Report. Neither of these decisions is acceptable, and we are currently seeking legal advice to discuss how best we can represent your interests to the ASA. The process may take time, and we will update you as regularly as we can.

Battle lines have been drawn. I also understand that the Faculty of Homeopathy – the body that represents doctors and vets who believe sugar pills can treat illnesses – are also looking to see what legal action can be taken to avoid a catastrophic collapse in their ability to make claims in advertising.

It looks like it is time to get the popcorn.

Why is this happening? Why, uniquely, do the homeopaths feel that they have to get legally heavy handed with the body that is charged with ensuring advertising in the UK is “legal, decent, honest and truthful”? The ASA can be trusted to regulate the adverts of the alcohol, tobacco, medicine, car and food industries, but not homeopathy. All these industries would benefit from being allowed to make unevidenced claims – but they do not because they see the benefit in the advertising industry as a whole being trusted by the public not to mislead. The ASA creates a level playing field that only advantages those that can substantiate claims and not those that can shout the loudest with anything they feel they can make up.

To understand how the homeopaths will respond we must look at how homeopathy started. Samuel Hahnemann founded homeopathy on the belief that he had discovered universal laws of health and disease. Treating illness was a process of finding substances that caused similar symptoms in healthy people and then using these substances as medicines –like-cures-like. He also discovered the ‘correct’ way to administer these poisons by serial dilution and shaking – to the point where none of the poison remained – just the water and alcohol which would be dripped onto sugar pills. All other forms of medicine were not just incorrect, but corrupt. He called mainstream physicians ‘allopaths’ and described what they did as ‘suppressing’ illnesses by pushing symptoms back into the body only later to re-emerge as worse illnesses – thus enriching the doctor, who could continue “suppressing symptoms” and selling more medicine. Indeed, allopathy was seen a leading cause of illness and it was the job of the homeopath to correct these terrible mistakes. Homeopaths’ attitudes to vaccines, mainstream cancer, malaria, HIV and TB treatments must be seen in this light.

Homeopathy is not an alternative or complementary medicine – but the only universal and complete system of medicine available. Criticisms of homeopathy were seen as attempts to suppress this True Medicine and hence preserve the wealth of doctors. For two hundred years, homeopaths have lived in a conspiratorial world where they have had to fight orthodoxy and wealthy medics to get their message out. They see the criticisms from scientists and doctors not as debates about evidence, but tactics to destroy the homeopathic threat to their income.

In the UK, lay homeopaths are particularly gripped by this fundamental view of homeopathy and see all through the conspiratorial lens of ‘allopathy vs homeopathy’.

Thus, we can be pretty sure that most homeopaths will be viewing the ASA as an agent of the pharmaceutical companies. No doubt they have worked out that it is not a statutory body with no real enforcement powers, and that it is funded by contributions from mainstream advertisers, such as drug companies. The conspiratorial mindset will be seeing the ASA as an attempt to curb ‘health freedom’ and the truth of homeopathy.

Homeopaths genuinely believe they have evidence that their treatments work. However, this belief is based on elevating the importance of testimonials, anecdote and historical usage. They are taught that objective forms of evidence, such as clinical trials, cannot be applied to ‘holistic’ techniques. As such, not being able to present their case and instead having to take the word of the House of Commons Select Committee (which contained known allopaths) will be completely unacceptable.

So, how will this pan out?

Outrage, and an overwhelming sense of injustice and entitlement, will ensure that most claims will remain on homeopaths’ web sites. Those that do wish to avoid confrontation with the ASA will not be able to assess what claims will be allowed, despite the ASA making this perfectly clear to them. Some may be foolish and think the ASA is of no significance. We can therefore expect a large amount of blatant non-compliance come July.

Assuming that the homeopaths legal threats amount to nothing, and given that the ASA has taken a position of the evidence, adjudications should come quickly thereafter. Homeopaths will be told that they have broken the CAP code and they must comply. This will also mean that they have explicitly broken their own Codes of Ethics that they have signed up to putting bodies like the Society of Homeopaths in extremely awkward positions. (My guess is that the Society will not recognise the ASA as a competent authority for interpreting the CAP code for homeopathy – a case of special pleading unique in the advertising world.)

It is then likely to get messy. Continual non-compliance will pressure the ASA to refer advertisers to the Office of Fair Trading who have powers to initiate criminal proceedings against homeopaths who may have broken Trading Standards legislation. How many have the balls, or stupidity, to face up to this remains to be seen.

Much will depend on the OFT’s appetite to prosecute – and this may be the one glimmer of hope for homeopaths. We are in this position because regulators and enforcement agencies, including Trading Standards and the MHRA, have turned a blind eye to this sector of commerce, allowing exemptions and exceptions to practices that would be crushed in any other industry. The ASA are entering waters that others have explicitly avoided wading in. If the credibility of the ASA is to remain, then they need to ensure the statutory authorities who can enforce compliance through criminal sanctions are prepared, on board, and ready to take quick action.

20 comments for “The Homeopaths and the Advertising Standards Authority

  1. Wendy Pearman
    April 1, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Well done to all of you. I think it is right that homeopaths know that there is law and they are subject to it. It also good that they know that this law is one they are glad of.

    What I can see is the dichotomies in the New Age philosophies (that most espuse) and the current situation for these people.

    New Age thinking would not condone martyrdom on this issue – that would be a ‘drama’. It also doesn’t acknowledge victimhood and sees that as ‘how did you attract it to you’ and equates victimhood and bullying. Victimhood is a stance to take more power in a situation.

    When I was in homeopathy I didn’t realise that I couldn’t square the circle, but looking from outside, many of the glib ‘New Age’ comments won’t square here. That discrepancy is growing.

    They believe in ‘stand in your own power’. ‘Rights are given to you by others, power is your own’. Well, people have used their rights to challenge homeopaths power to claim all sorts. I’m not sure how homeopathic New Age philosophy copes or what the dichotomy will generate, but it has to be getting a little bit difficult.

    They have another homeopathic philosophy, ‘delusion (or drama) will always generate pain.’

    • Wendy Pearman
      April 2, 2011 at 11:08 pm

      I forgot their worst philosophy ‘What you reject persists, what you accept goes away’. I got a bit persecuted by them on this one. Well, they rejected, you, Andy when they tried to take legal action and propogation of your blog meant that it persisted.

      They’d do well to live by their own axioms. Accept the ASA rulings and they’ll let them alone. Abide by society’s and their organizations’ rules. That would be logical.

      No-one cares that they hold those beliefs – only how they affect others – and that should always be within society’s reasonable norms and the law.

    • April 4, 2011 at 4:24 pm

      There is something else as well. Many lay homeopaths of a certain type believe that their “right” to practice homeopathy derives from common law and they place an almost mystical value on the “ancient” roots of common law. And that shalt be the whole of the Law.

      Certainly those lay homeopaths involved in the revival of UK lay homeopathy in the early 1970s have always existed in a legislative framework that places limitations on their actions. UK lay homeopathy in its current form ignored legislation from the very start.

      “Homeopathy is allowed under Common Law” is not a particularly effective mantra in the face of breaches of civil and criminal law.

  2. Richard Rawlins (FRCS)
    April 2, 2011 at 8:47 am

    I note this ssue was raised on April 1st. Use of the term “Homeopathy” and “Standards” in the same sentence is clearly a joke!

    Well done!

    All most of us ask is for honesty and integrity. Homeopaths have had a lot of fun for over two hundred years. Hahnemann brilliantly sorted out the poisons his colleage physicians used at that time, but it really is time to move on.

    Homeopaths should concentrate on their undoubted skills as councellors and empathic supporters of those who are suffering and set aside the “remedies”.

    Except of course that those remedies are produced by a major industry – one which is supporting the May conference of the so-called “College of Medicine”.

    No doubt evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy will be presented at that conference. Though it is a shame they did not have it ready for the Select Committee. To deny us this knowledge is perverse.

  3. April 2, 2011 at 10:22 am

    I had one response back that indicated action, rather than kicking it into the long grass. A so-called “psychic surgeon”.

  4. Dave
    April 2, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    I’m surprised the ASA have taken firm action on this. I reported a so-called “psychic” to them for selling alleged “healing cream” that has been “charged with healing energies during meditation”, which is clearly nonsense, and another product also sold on his website, a so-called quartz stone that “can be used with any condition” and “Spiritually, it raises energy to the highest possible level and enhances psychic ability” There is also the offer of the “psychic” and his “spirit doctor” to “charge” this item also with “healing energies”. Also utter tripe, in my opinion and quite clearly cannot be substantiated. All the ASA came back with was a statement that this appears to be the advertiser’s opinion and they would not be looking into it. Well, that’s OK, then, despite the obvious firm claims made by the advertiser. I am not impressed. They seem to have about as much influence as that other toothless outfit, OFCOM, with whom I have crossed swords on previous occasions.

  5. Michieux
    April 2, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    The real question is, why has it taken society so abysmally long to see through this sham? I guess we can be grateful that at long last something is being done. But, like many others, I realise the fight for reason and rationality over hokum and often downright fraud is far from over, and we must redouble our efforts with every victory obtained. Those who would seek to benefit from others’ credulity and ignorance are not going away, and neither should we.

  6. April 3, 2011 at 12:01 am

    Richard Rawlins said:

    No doubt evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy will be presented at that conference. Though it is a shame they did not have it ready for the Select Committee. To deny us this knowledge is perverse.

    That reminds me of the scientific ‘evidence’ presented at a homeopathy conference Skepticat went to:

    Epic fail: Scientific Research in Homeopathy Conference 2010

  7. Clam
    April 3, 2011 at 4:59 am

    Does this mean that the business opportunity I spotted will not get off the ground? It had struck me that the manufacture of FAKE Homeopathic medicine was the perfect scam. I would have made sugar pills containing … sugar. With randomly generated labels taken from a medical dictionary.
    Damn. Back to the drawing board.

  8. April 4, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    It gets worse. Compliance with the CAP Codes which are voluntary is one thing, but compliance with the law is another matter. The Medicines (Advertising) Regulations 1994 is probably the most important. The MHRA have a lot of guidance on advertising on their website. Apparently, they are also in consultation with the homeopaths on the advertising of homeopathy products and services.

    Evidence of efficacy means diddly-squat when a great deal of advertising by individual homeopaths, suppliers and trade bodies would appear to be in breach of the Regulations. Diseases listed in Schedule 1 “Diseases in Respect of which Advertisements to the Public are Prohibited” are often mentioned on websites.

  9. John H
    April 4, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    I love the warning on the bottle of pixy dust to “keep out of the reach of children”.

    I suppose you don’t really need the little sods necking all your magic sweeties and getting a sugar rush do you.

    I see the pills come from our old friends Ainsworths whose web site and list of magic cures is genuinely one of the funniest things I have ever seen online (or anywhere else for that matter).

    I don’t know much about branding or medical labelling but surely “Anti Malaria” would be a better description for this rubbish.

    And I also love the meaningless batch number on the bottle. It is hardly likely that sugar will lose its potency.

    I still believe they do as Andy has suggested many times before and just shove any old pills in any old bottle and stick a daft label on it.

    Clam – we have all thought about it – especially when the funds are a little on the low side. A case of selling candy to an idiot rather than stealing it from a baby.

  10. John H
    April 4, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    Having rethunk this perhaps “Malaria” is actually a valid description of this rubbish as you are a lot more likely to get malaria if you use sugar pills rather than proper anti-malarials.

    Maybe Ainsworths are protecting themselves legally here.

  11. Rita Wing
    April 5, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    I say, that Ainsworths stuff is pricey, isn’t it?

  12. Tzspence
    April 6, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    I believe that the ASA are aware they are being used in the NC’s campaign against CAM and questions are being asked how best to handle these orchestrated mass complaints.

    I also believe that not everyone is on side.

  13. R Renwick
    April 7, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    Scientific enquiry first and foremost requires a scientific attitude. This is one of curious skepticism, not the smug contempt demonstrated in the comments above.
    Secondly, flowing from that, it requires finding a means, ( a method) that will best fit and capture the specific phenomenon observed. This part of the process can take longer to unravel than the eventual actual checking and reproducing of a phenomenon. In other words,
    There is no such thing as THE scientific method, only scientific methods.
    One size fits all methodology is not scientific simply because someone calls it scientific. It is not only grossly misleading and/or lazy, it is simply indulging in magical thinking
    Thank you.
    Old Crow

  14. Matt
    April 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    The thing is when you approach homeopathy in a spirit of curious skepticism the notion that something in the pills prescribed has any healing property gets dismissed pretty quickly. Studies that take steps, generally accepted across the whole of modern science, to avoid false conclusions generally show homeopathy to be ineffective.

    However the other thing that becomes apparent when approaching homeopathy in a spirit of curious skepticism is the curious nature of the people caught up in it. Take yourself for example.

    Your complaint is two fold:

    First you complain that people are contemptuous and smug. It’s a bit difficult to avoid at least appearing so when you have clear scientific evidence someone else’s set of ideas are entirely and wholly wrong. It’s also not relevant; my degree of nastiness to you affects not at all whether any given proposition about the physical world is true or not.

    Second you indulge in the classic homeopathic trope of diverging into the philosophy of science. THE scientific method is generally taken to refer to the iterative deductive process in science where a hypothesis is drawn from a theoretical framework, tested empirically to see if it ought to be rejected; the theoretical framework adjusted accordingly and the process started again. When you talk of scientific methods more generally you’re talking about the methodologies of particular branches of science; the protocols by which hypothesis are tested. The distinction is clear and it requires no magical thinking to make it.

    More importantly there is no philosophical issue in testing homeopathy. Someone seeing a homeopath and receiving treatment either gets better faster than they other wise would or better where they otherwise wouldn’t or they do not. Testing this is trivial: it turns out they do not. So lets move on to more interesting research programs and hand homeopathy over to the field of consumer protection where it belongs so that it may be subjected to the methods of the trading standards authority as it should.

  15. Bunny Heisel
    August 11, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Someone essentially lend a hand to make severely articles I might state. That is the very first time I frequented your website page and up to now? I surprised with the analysis you made to create this actual post extraordinary. Fantastic task!

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