The Advertising Regulator Struggles with Homeopaths

HMC12_New_Statesman_Advert_Oct.jpg.scaled.1000Last year, the homeopathic lobby group H:MC21, spent a significant sum of money by placing a full page advert in New Statesman magazine.

The advert appeared to be calling for more NHS funding for homeopath whilst giving misleading information and denigrating critics of this quackery.

In the Telegraph, Christine Odone wrote about her old magazine sinking to plugging nonsense,

The pages once graced by George Orwell and George Bernard Shaw now feature a catalogue of factoids about the adverse side-effects of conventional drugs and the NHS’s wrong priorities.

Professor Edzard Ernst, one of the academic researchers attacked in the advert, responded with an article in New Statesman,

Rarely had I seen an advert so inaccurate and borderline libellous in a respected publication. The advert, which appeared to breach the British Code of Advertising, was by a lobby group called Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century (H:MC21).

It contained unjustified attacks on myself and colleagues, including statements that gave a dangerously false impression of homoeopathy’s therapeutic value.

I complained about this advert to the Advertising Standards Authority and encouraged others to do so. I specifically complained about each statement made in the advert to ensure the fullest adjudication was made. Five other complaints were received.

It has taken almost a year for the ASA to adjudicate on the advert and the reasons for taking so long are worth exploring. Their deliberations are now published.

In total, twelve specific issues were looked into by the ASA. The ASA upheld seven of these points as breaking the British Code of Advertising Practice.

Most importantly, the ASA ruled that,

  1. The homeopaths could not supply sufficiently robust evidence to to show that homeopathy was superior to a placebo and there was a lack of evidence to support claims of efficacy.
  2. That the much touted Spence study of patients at Bristol Homeopathic Hospital did not show that patients’ improvements was directly relate to homeopathic treatment.
  3. That the homeopaths were misleading people when they claimed more trials of homeopathy were positive rather than negative.
  4. That the recent Cuban leptospirosis homeopathy trial could not show that reductions in disease were attributable to homeopathic treatment.
  5. There was no evidence that homeopathy could treat chronic disease and that increasing funding for homeopathic treatment would result in increased benefits.
  6. That the homeopaths claims that charity Sense About Science relied on ‘propaganda stunts’ and had ‘no scientific credibility’ could not be substantiated and was misleading.
  7. That claims that Ernst and Singh’s Book Trick or Treatment was ‘scientifically flawed’ was the the opinion of HMC21 and this did not in itself substantiate this claim.

A number of points were not upheld, most significantly that the denigratory attacks against Professor Ernst and Evan Harris did not fall within the British Code of Advertising list of parties that you could not denigrate (It would appear, according to the ASA, that academics and MPs are fair game, but producers of competing products are not.)

It has taken almost a year to conclude this. And the main reason is that H:MC21 fought tooth and nail on each point, never letting an interim judgement go by without challenge. And there were many interim judgements.

Indeed, the amount of material thrown at the ASA must have been huge. I have written about some of the peurile and voluminous material used against Ernst and Singh by a central member of this lobby group.

Now, the Society of Homeopaths are very clear about how their members should behave. Their code of ethics states,

38 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).

39 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. All research should be presented clearly honestly and without distortion, all speculative theories will be stated as such and clearly distinguished.

It is quite clear that the authors of this advert have ignored the BCAP, have not been factual, have been misleading, have made claims of superiority, have disparaged other professionals and made implicit and explicit promises of cure for named diseases.

One would have thought that the authors would be immediately removed from their register.

Who was behind this advert?

The founder of the H:MC21 lobby group was William Alderson. At the time of publication, Alderson was a director of the Society of Homeopaths and was Chair and Treasurer of H:MC21. But very quickly that changed. When it became clear that a director was likely to be subject to intense scrutiny by the ASA, his name disappeared from the list of directors. Soon after, Companies House showed that his directorship had been terminated. Whether he was pushed or decided to step aside is not clear.

He also stopped his official roles at H:MC21. Although his LinkedIn profile still lists him as a “Special Consultant”.

If the Society of Homeopaths do decide to take action, then now it will not be against one of their own directors. But, as we know, the Society do not enforce their code of conduct, so I doubt Alderson will need to worry

At present, many more homeopaths are now being scrutinised by the ASA. This is as a result of the Nightingale Collaboration’s campaign to highlight how widespread misleading claims are about homeopathy on practitioners’ web sites.

The ASA has been inundated and has asked that further complaints are not made until progress is made. Last month, the ASA issued specific guidance to homeopaths on how to comply with the CAP code. In that guidance, they state,

To date, the ASA has have not seen persuasive evidence to support claims that homeopathy can treat, cure or relieve specific conditions or symptoms. We understand this position is in line with other authoritative reviews of evidence.

We therefore advise homeopathy marketers to avoid making specific claims of efficacy for treatments where robust evidence is not held to substantiate them.

The ASA have a job ahead as there are many homeopaths who have refused to comply with these instructions and continue to make specific claims. Indeed, even the Society of Homeopaths maintain a list of conditions that it believed homeopathy can help, in apparent breach of these CAP guidelines and even its own code of conduct. I expect many homeopaths will be defending their delusions as hard as H:MC21 has done.

It would appear the homeopaths do not care to much about what the ASA have to say. Why is this?

The ASA is not a statutory body, but an industry funded self-regulator. As such, it has been largely successful in ensuring that advertising in the UK is legal, decent and truthful. It has managed to regulate advertisers without involving criminal sanctions which would be costly and damaging to all involved. Indeed, because of the ASA, a CEO of a company might be sent to prison for misleading their investors in the City, but is very unlikely to even get a fine for misleading their own customers in an advert.

But the ASA only works because of the fear of adverse publicity from ASA adjudications, peer pressure from other advertisers, and fear of sanction from their own trade bodies.

In large companies, there will be marketeers and PR people weighing judgments between the capacity for an advert to increase sales and its capacity to harm their credibility, customer goodwill and their share price.

But homeopaths do not suffer from these pressures. Most homeopaths are small traders and an ASA adjudication is likely to go unnoticed by their clients, and will almost certainly be ignored by the wider media. Homeopaths’ peers share their mind-set of hostility to outside authorities that threaten their beliefs, and so an adjudication might even be seen as a badge of honour by their peers. And a homeopath’s trade body has no intention of bringing sanctions when the trade bodies themselves break the CAP guidelines.

Just as the Press Complaints Commission did not have the peer support of other newspapers to manage the excesses of the trade, so too the ASA does not have the support of other alternative therapists in order to police the claims of alternative medicine. The PCC is finished after the phone-hacking scandal. It has been seen to be toothless and craven. A tougher regulator is needed and will emerge. And so too, it is possible that the mass of homeopathy complaints will expose the weaknesses of the ASA in ensuring misleading quack medicine advertising is not published.

That is, unless they get tough very soon, and get the co-operation of other authorities who have real teeth –such as Trading Standards and the Medicines Regulator. This is within their powers and they should not hesitate. How many homeopaths will persist in their obstinacy when a criminal record is on the cards? A few well chosen examples could be made that could clear up this problem very quickly.

It is a shame that the very British style of low key regulation, that appears to work so well for most of industry (bar a few budget airlines – who also relish being bad boys), may be damaged by the cults of alternative medicine. The problem arises as authorities treat these cults as serious businesses that can be regulated as normal rather than deluded and dangerous fools, or worse, deceptive charlatans. The ASA works because regulators and business share a common world view. This is not the case with homeopaths and other pseudoscientific therapy cults.

Whether Trading Standards and the MHRA have what it takes to manage these claims remains to be seen. So far, their track record has been abysmal. The ASA have shown their credibility in assessing claims, but have not been able to easily enforce adjudications with such advertisers by striking the necessary fear and shame. A partnership is required. Watch this space.

On this theme…

8 Comments on The Advertising Regulator Struggles with Homeopaths

  1. The pages once graced by George Orwell and George Bernard Shaw now feature a catalogue of factoids about the adverse side-effects of conventional drugs and the NHS’s wrong priorities.

    The same George Bernard Shaw who was a proponent of eugenics – in line with the magazine’s stance at the time?

    Pseudoscience is not a new phenomenon at The Staggers.

    The only difference seems to be that the magazine is willing to prostitute its values these days – for an advertising fee, of course.

  2. One thing that this sorry saga throws up is the common illusion that ‘peer review’ and ‘evidence provided by professional bodies’ are of some objective value:

    The publication “Halloween Science” may well be peer-reviewed, but the publication is, I believe, produced by H:MC21 and the “peers” are other homoeopaths.

    H:MC21’s misleading claims about RCTs being more +ve than -ve were based on assertions — I hesitate to call it “evidence” — to the Science and Technology Committee made by the British Homeopathic Association, the Faculty of Homeopathy and the Complementary Medicine Research Group.

    It is probably clear that, to most of us that read this blog,the shortcomings of ‘peer review’ and of ‘evidence provided by professional bodies’ is patently obvious in this instance, it is a cautionary lesson to us that we need to be wary of it in all cases, especially those where there has been a stated willingness to use peer review to silence critics. Peer review is, as this case shows, easily subverted. Merely renaming an assertion as “evidence” does not make it so and, as ever, we should demand to see the actual evidence.

  3. Like all purveyors of nonsense and rubbish, these people will fight tooth and nail to hold on to their “golden goose”. It is therefore heartening to see the level of sceptical activism rising to meet the challenge posed by these nefarious, conscienceless scam artists. I would just add that our response to the likes of H:MC21 ought to be twofold: educate the general public about the worthlessness of these “remedies” (and the people who sell them!), and expose the lies the sellers tell in their shameless attempts to hoodwink the public.

  4. There’s something I wanted to explain to you to show up the fanaticism of the homeopaths making such a fuss about ASA.

    It has been long known, and was true when I was a homeopath, that the great majority of your new clients will come from word-of-mouth, satisfied customers. My first contact is the classic way it works. I was talking to a fellow campaigner and she asked after my children and I said that one had glue ear, 60% hearing and was due for surgery for grommets. She said her neice had been in the same position but she had been to a homeopath and did not need the operation. She got me the homeopath’s name from her sister. My daughter’s hearing rose to 90%. (I think it was blowing the balloon twice a day to change pressure in the Eustachian tubes, not the remedy, that did it). Subsequently I took my other daughter, then, when I was pregnant, I went, and then I took the baby.

    That is how you get patients as a homeopath. That is the classic pattern and it what we were taught at every college and at tutorials.

    Another way to meet people who might be interested was first-aid classes, basic child health classes, mother and baby classes at local community centres, etc. That does not get you many patients but you might get one or two and people know who you are and may think about it when they want a homeopath.

    The percentage of new clients from any form of advertising: Yellow Pages, web, leaflet, card, is small. Everyone knows that. It is established thinking in that world.

    For most homeopaths, closing their websites will be saving expenditure on a service that probably does not pay for itself.

    When I moved cities I wanted a new homeopath. I didn’t look at the ads, I looked for someone who was known and trusted by somebody I knew. That is normal in that world.

    I read some comments in a previous blog alleging that homeopaths would have to go out of business if they had to change their sites in accordance with ASA. If closing the website closes your business then you have no real practice anyway – where is your regular client base?

    Their outrage is out of proportion to any financial gain from any single form of advertising. This is not rational, it is insane!!!

    The fanatical approach from some of these people I feel, really shows up the loss of rational thinking in that community. They’ve got to fight, got to fight, and make stupid claims (as above) just because they feel attacked. The seperatist, seige mentality forces them to make silly statements and to act like bullies, quite frankly. They value response over reaction, but they show themselves as reactive, irrational fanatics on this issue.

    They’ve somehow imbued in their college that they do not have to submit to the law and they are outraged that the ASA asked them to keep to the rules. Outrage that is out of proportion to any financial gain from any single form of advertising. This is not rational, it is insane!!!

  5. A lot of reaction to homeopathy is also out of proportion outrage. Are homeopaths insane for taking on the ASA? Foolish, daft, waste of time could describe it maybe but not insane.
    My homeopathic taking wife thinks that Wendy needs a dose of Sepia in LM? If you are outraged by this suggestion then I would of course understand.

    • Do you think homoeopaths should be held to the same standards in advertising as estate agents and second hand car dealers (and if not, why not)? That is what this is about.

    • Hi Grumpy

      No I’m not outraged. When writing here we are addressing people making extreme claims and I feel those extremes are madness.

      In general I avoid grouping individuals as ‘that group’ and look out differences – where is there more sense, where is their less. The extreme view on this, that has been written in other posts on this blog is, frankly, suffinciently irrational, over-reactive and paranoid, that iit is reasonalble to call it insanity.

      I appreciate that your wife may not be in this category. Please tell her that I no longer use or believe in homeopathy and will leave the Sepia with her. Please point out that I consider this analysis of others’ problems and idea that she knows the answer and can help, a fundamental, dehumanising, problem of the homeopathic world (which I lived in once). It is this ‘knowledge’ of others problems, and the idea that you have a solution that leads to the travesties of colonial homeopathy leading false paths and false hopes in Africa with the sale of homeopathic prophylaxis for malaria and HIV. It also leads to homeopaths to claiming to have treatments for AIDS giving false hope, rather than working with those who want to get the medicines that are known to have effect to those people.

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