In September, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority wrote to all homeopaths informing them that it would be taking action against homeopaths that did not comply with the rules for making claims in advertising. It has taken the ASA many years to get to this position after trying to work with homeopaths and their trade bodies to ensure they cleaned up their act. The Nightingale Collaboration has been campaigning hard and working with the ASA to ensure the alternative health sector of the advertising world complies with the rules.
Homeopaths have, of course, taken umbrage. Homeopaths want to be free to make any wild claim they dream up from their fantasy world of health where sugar pills cure serious illnesses.
In many ways, homeopaths should not find an issue with this. The Society of Homeopaths Code of Ethics is quite clear that homeopaths should respect advertising laws as managed by the ASA. However, this blog has long maintained that mere lip service is played to the Advertising Code and the their Code of Ethics is a fig leaf to hide their extreme anti-science views.
The ASA for their part, make it clear that they do not want homeopaths to stop practicing. Instead, they simply want compliance with a code that all other industries are happy with.
We have no intention of restricting the ability of practitioners to advertise legitimate and legal services, nor do we seek to restrict the right of individuals to choose treatment. However, when advertisers make claims about products or services, whatever the sector, they must hold appropriate evidence to back up those claims. If they do not, then we have a responsibility to intervene to protect consumers by ensuring that those ads are amended or withdrawn.
To date, the Society of Homeopaths have simply issued a press release to their members saying they are ‘here to help’ them comply and have issued guidance on how to keep within the law. On the face of it, if their members complied with the Society’s guidelines then there would be little trouble for anyone. The Society give pretty sensible advice on keeping out of trouble!
However, this time it looks as if the Society of Homeopath’s members are not happy with this approach and appear to have bounced the leadership into more confrontational action. It looks as if some rogue members have formed their own action group, in spite of their leadership, to take the fight to the ASA, and are campaigning amongst the membership to fight the guidelines.
So, today, the Society of Homeopaths have issued a new press release saying they are taking legal advice on the status of the ASA.
Mark Taylor, the Society’s Chief Executive commented, ” The Board is concerned that the actions currently being taken have potential implications for the livelihood of members and yet there is real doubt whether the ASA has a legal basis for the actions it is taking, particularly as it is a private unaccountable company. We have asked for some legal advice to assess if we have a case.”
Meanwhile, 6 RSHoms have written to all Society members asking them to join in a protest about the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
Before we move on to the funnier bits of the story, let’s get this legal thing out of the way.
The ASA was set up as a marketing industry body to provide a simple way of policing advertising standards that prevented advertisers being exposed to the risks and costs of the courts. The idea is simple: if the industry maintains its own standards, then advertisers have a straightforward way of seeking help on how to comply with the law and a method of settling complaints that does not result in someone going to prison or getting a big fine. All reasonable advertisers recognise this and there is much respect for the body that allows a creative and successful advertising industry to thrive without being fearful of legal red-tape.
It does not mean that the legal sanctions do not still exist. It means that the enforcers of consumer law recognise that the ASA can give advertisers the best chance to comply before they need to get heavy handed. If the ASA, in conjunction with the advertiser, fail to create solutions to a bad advert then the legal sanctions can kick in. Homeopaths spectacularly fail to understand this and want to question the ‘legal credentials’ of the ASA. The ASA should be their friend in helping them stay legal, decent and honest. Their enemy, of course, is reality. Homeopaths want to claim things that are not true and that they do not have robust evidence for. But instead of embracing science and working in the best interests of their customers, they want to defend their spectacularly deluded beliefs to the death – probably of one of their clients.
So, this is where it gets a bit more interesting. The ‘gang of six’ letter and their arguments against the ASA have fallen into my hands.
Here is what they have written to homeopaths in order to get them to fight the ASA.
Response to the position of Advertising Standards Authority Ltd and
Committees on Advertising Practice Ltd on homeopathy.
Call to action
The recent letter sent out to all UK homeopaths from the Committee of Advertising Practice stated, “The ASA considered a body of evidence which sought to demonstrate the efficacy of homeopathy in treating a range of medical conditions. On the basis of expert advice, the ASA concluded that the evidence was insufficient to support any efficacy claims”.
Professor Robert Hahn is Head of Research at Södertälje Hospital, Södertälje, Sweden. Despite having no personal interests in homeopathy whatever, he was so distressed by the activities of homeopathy denialists that he examined the ‘research’ of Shang and Ernst for himself, and easily saw that only by omitting 98% of the evidence could anyone say that homeopathy is ineffective.
The Swiss HTA authors, Professor Matthiessen and Dr Gudrun Bornhöft, protested to ASA Ltd three years ago (when ASA was ‘considering the evidence for homeopathy’ – see attached), that ASA had airbrushed 99% of the research in the Swiss Health Technology Assessment out of existence, and grossly misrepresented the other 1%.
The attached document is a comprehensive challenge to ASA’s position. We would greatly welcome the support of all colleagues as detailed below.
What to do
We ask you to add to our efforts by sending a short Email of complaint about ASA and CAP to:
1) The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/report-anti-competitive-or-market-issues-to-the-cma
2) Your local Trading Standards office, which forward all complaints to a central office. Your local office can be found here: http://www.tradingstandards.uk/advice/index.cfm#postcodesearchform.
3) Trading Standards, Camden (who have ‘agreed to act as ASA’s legal backstop’) – Email address [email protected]…
What to say
A short message is more likely to be read. For example –
“Would you please investigate allegations of illegal bias against homeopaths and homeopathy by the Advertising Standards Authority Ltd, in breach of Consumer Protection Regulations”.
To justify your request you can then
i) Attach the whole ‘document’ and say your reasons for writing are to be found in the attachment; or
ii) Paste just the document’s resume into your message as your reasons; or
iii) Choose a few parts from the document that particularly catch your eye; or
iv) Write your own message.
The same message can be sent to all three addresses.
Trading Standards plays a numbers game – every complaint counts!
Other CAM practitioners have already asked both Trading Standards (TS) and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to investigate alleged breaches of the Consumer Protection Act by ASA Ltd., and we too have already done likewise.
Homeopathy denialists have been so thoroughly trounced in so many countries around the world that it may not be so hard to achieve here too, if enough people are willing to make it happen. As antimicrobial resistance steadily grows, this country needs homeopathy. Please join us – it won’t take you long.
Heather Abel RSHom
Paul Burnett RSHom
Selina Hatherley RSHom
Annie Hirsch RSHom
Ursula Kraus-Harper RSHom
Rix Pyke RSHom
Lucinda Torabi RSHom
Gregory Wessels RSHom
There is much here to dismantle (not least that it is not six homeopaths) and much, much more in their ‘attached document’ – which we shall come to shortly.
Firstly, the hero of the day for the homeopaths is ‘Professor Robert Hahn, Head of Research at Södertälje Hospital’ whose credentials appear to be that he appears to know nothing about homeopathy. Hahn does know quite a lot though about getting “Clear Responses From the Spirit World.” He also knows nothing about systematic reviews where it is quite normal to get rid of the bulk of studies that do not comply with an acceptable quality standard. In the quackademic world of homeopathy, that is almost all of them.
The other ‘academics’ that boost their claim are Professor Matthiessen and Dr Gudrun Bornhöft who authored the so-called Swiss HTA on homeopathy that came to positive conclusions about homeopathy. Of course, they fail to mention that Matthiessen and Bornhöft wrote this from a private University that specialised in occult and alternative medical research. The report is an embarrassment of poor methodology and was rejected by the Swiss government.
The ‘challenge’ document is a masterclass in paranoia, silliness and delusion. The ‘Resumé’ of their document consists of seven points each of which is spectacularly wrong.
One point that is worth drawing out is point (f) where it is claimed that ‘A vicious campaign of ‘lies’ and disinformation against homeopathy, with apparently widespread intimidation, has been waged not least in the UK. Evidence suggests this to be in breach of serious criminal laws. ‘
In their document, they go into more detail. They say,
A seeming army of online anti-homeopathy bloggers, all supporting each other with personal opinion and pseudo-science and using the S&T to justify themselves, and some openly admitting to being paid, e.g. ‘Gimpy’, who admits being a pharmaceutical researcher, and who encourages people to: ‘Kill, kill, kill, mutilate, smash, annihilate, obliterate or at least maim all the homeopaths’. (Later he says not to kill them, but apparently still wishes to mutilate, smash and maim them). Will Trading Standards (TS) and the CMA please take all necessary steps to identify this man and bring him to court?
If true, this would be serious. But beautifully, they reference a website that is actually a spoof of Gimpy’s blog (now defunct) that was almost certainly written by an angry homeopath. It’s a homeopath’s fevered fantasy about what a homeopathy critic is actually like: an adolescent anorak wearing, narcissistic troll funded by Big Pharma and wanting to smash everything up. The real Gimpy differs from this caricature in a number of significant areas.
A quote from this spoof web site:
So I’m lying in bed later that evening with an early hangover, and I start to think, like, after we Kill, kill, kill, mutilate, smash, annihilate, obliterate or at least maim all the homeopaths, where’s all the funding gonna come from. I got a cold sweat sudden like. You know I’m up at 6 every morning on the old Google alert and twitter, following every lead there is, blogging and sending nasty emails all day long. It’s a full time job, and I deserve every penny I get. But I realised suddenly, hey I got to leave some of these homeopaths around for bashing, cause I don’t fancy a round with the Chiropractors after the bloody nose that Singh got, and like no one’s gonna fund me against the church, and lets face it they make similar claims to the hom’s – think about it – healing and belief and prayer and energy and holy virgins and all that). Who’s going to fund that? I mean I don’t really fancy getting back to experimenting on all those mice in cages. Even worse, whose gonna read my blog!? Who’s going to even notice little me? Nightmare.
I asked Gimpy if he knew who had written this to target him. Unfortunately, he did not. Please do read the other ‘posts’ on this site to get into the mindset of how homeopaths view thinking people.
Anyway, first indications are that homeopaths are being told by those that they complain to to not be so silly. Of course. It does look like if homeopaths refuse to comply then they will be referred to the appropriate authorities and will be investigated and may well end up with criminal records. The Society of Homeopaths could be ensuring that deluded nonsense like the above is shut down and instead their members’ minds are focussed on ensuring their websites and advertising comply with the law. If a homeopath ends up prosecuted then the Society must share their part of the responsibility for that.
I suspect though that the Society of Homeopaths want to hedge their bets. They want to appear professional and responsible to the Professional Standards Association but at the same time avoid a new schism within the quack world. After the internecine Quack Wars (which Gimpy documented so thoroughly) of a decade ago, the trade has begun to form a more unified approach to matters. The action of the ASA might well be driving a new wedge between those that aspire to be ‘professional’ and those that want to take a fundamentalist and uncompromising stand for their cult.
Update 23 November 2016
The Nightingale Collaboration follow up with Freedom of Information requests and other details on the tricky choices teh Society of Homeopaths has to make over policing its quack membership.