Is water good for us? Is there a link between food and cancer? Most of us would say so, but the UK's arbiter on legal, decent, honest and truthful advertising doesn't agree. For years, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has been making strange decisions about advertisements from the world of alternative medicine, but it's intensified over the past few years since it also started policing websites. But now alternative practitioners, who have been barred from making self-evident claims about their work on their websites, have created their own ASA, which they believe can fairly and competently evaluate statements on the effectiveness of therapies and products.
Despite its name, the ASA is not a government body and it has no legal powers. It is a limited company created by the advertising industry as a self-regulator to ward off a move by the government of the time to set up an independent regulatory body. It's also funded by the major advertisers, including companies from the food, petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries. However, through its policy-setting sister company CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice), the ASA sets the bar high-and, arguably, impossibly high-for proof and evidence of any claims made by manufacturers and practitioners, even admiiting that it often doesn't have the appropriate experts to assess claims. Not surprisingly, it has never found in favour of any alternative treatment or practitioner website or advertisement. Frightened by the ruling-and having wrongly assumed that the ASA is a government agency with legal powers- most practitioners reluctantly removed any health claims from their websites or advertisements, so leaving their potential clients completely in the dark. Any that don't comply appear on the ASA's 'noncompliant advertisers' page on its website.
It acts retrospectively and only when it has received a complaint. When the ASA was given its new duties to police the web, Simon Singh, who runs the pharmaceutical-funded 'charity'
Sense About Science, provided seed capital for a new pressure group, the Nightingale Collaboration, with the sole aim to complain about websites and advertisements from alternative practitioners. It even created software- which it called 'Shooting Fish in a Barrel'-that enables its tens of followers to automatically register a complaint about any alternative health website to
the ASA. Our own magazine was one of the first to be caught in Nightingale's crosshairs, with around 27 advertisements in one issue alone reported to the ASA- apparently something of a record. But after enduring two years of relentless censorship, alternative practitioners have decided to create their own ASA, one that does have the expertise to evaluate health claims fairly.
It's been created by one of the regulators of alternative practitioners, The General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies (GRCCT), which launched its advertising certification service last autumn. Its panel of experts from across a wide spectrum of alternative health disciplines has already approved its first websites. Such approval comes with a professional guarantee, which includes an uncapped provision for expert witnesses and support in the event of any legal challenge to website claims. The GRCCT service is proactive and provides a 'seal of approval', which
guarantees that claims are legal and not in breach of any consumer and trading laws. The approval process involves experts from the legal, regulatory, academic and professional sectors, and costs start from lb55 (see www.grcct.org for more information). Here are some examples of ASA adjudications against alternative medicine: Medical thermal imaging. An advertisement in WDDTY from Thermal Imaging claiming "100% safe breast screening . . . thermography can detect active breast abnormality before it's possible with mammography" was challenged by the Nightingale
But as thermography was used as a complementary screening method alongside mammography until the late 1980s-and is still routinely used by a major London hospital-the company
was able to produce 1,247 scientific papers, including studies authored by some of the world's leading experts in the field. The ASA lost some of the papers and deliberately excised relevant sections from others before deciding the evidence was not 'robust'. It leaked its decision to the Daily Mail, which ran a misleading story under the headline 'Clinic found guilty of misleading women by claiming it could detect breast lumps through thermal imaging'. The company's proprietor Phil Hughes became ill as a result and suffered catastrophic organ failure, and had to be
treated in intensive care where he also suffered cardiac arrest. Islington Homeopathy Clinic. Its website stated that homeopathy "is sanctioned by the UK government and has been an integral part of the National Health Service (NHS) since it was founded in 1948". The Nightingale Collaboration challenged the statement as it suggested that homeopathy is an effective treatment. In response, the clinicpointed out that Aneurin Bevan, the architect of the NHS, stated that "homeopathic institutions will be enabled to provide their own form of treatment, and the continuity of the characteristics of those institutions will be maintained". The ASA found for the complainant, but it ended up being the best thing that could have happened to the clinic (see box, right), which is seeking to have its site sanctioned by the GRCCT initiative.
Quinton Water . Under the CAP code, a health claim is "any claim that states, suggests or implies that a relationship exists between a food category, a food or one of its constituents and health". As Quinton Water offers a range of products based on a sea-water solution, they are considered foods, and any health claims for them are regulated by the EU. Even a selfevident statement such as 'Water is good for you' with no supporting evidence is inadmissible. Although Quinton says its products have helped millions of people, it has conducted many large clinical trials, and it has testimonials from doctors and patients, the ASA ruled that it was not permitted to make any health claims for its products.
Zo"e Harcombe. This is a best-selling author who holds 'alternative' views about weight gain and diets. She believes, for example, that the calorie theory and conventional weight-loss advice are
wrong-and she said so in a recent video that's on her website. However, as she had recently published a new book, The Obesity Epidemic: What Caused It? How
Can We Stop It?, the ASA considered the video an advertisement for the book and so subject to its rulings. Not surprisingly, it found against the video, as the CAP code holds to the calorie
theory. In response, Zo"e said: "CAP admit they have no evidence [to support their views]. The ASA admit they have no choice but to administer the opinions of CAP.
If someone complains to the Alternative-view Silencing Agency about you, don't waste a second of your time submitting evidence." Dr Vernon Coleman. Advertisements for Dr Coleman's book, Food for Thought, mentioned a link between certain foods and cancer. Although countless studies-and government reports-have supported the claim, the ASA found against him. As Dr Coleman said: "I hate to think how many people might have died unnecessarily if the world had taken notice of the ASA and had decided that there was no link between food and cancer." H:MC21. The charity Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century (H:MC21) placed an advertisement in a supplement of the New Statesman magazine in 2010. A complaint against it led to a bitter 10-month deliberation, with the ASA finding against both the advert and homeopathy, claiming there was no evidence to suggest it had any effect beyond that of a placebo. In addition, the ASA rejected a review of 6,500 patients who had received homeopathic treatment at Bristol's Homeopathic Hospital, stating that the patients' own assessments of their health were invalid (although it is common practice in conventional medical trials).
H:MC21 also said its other submitted evidence was either lost or edited. WDDTY. Yes, we have fallen afoul of the ASA as well. In a leaflet, we stated that doctors were the third major cause of
death after heart disease and cancer.When challenged, we produced the evidence-a major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000. The ASA reluctantly accepted we were right-but it still found against us, as we were in breach of another CAP code that bars any statement that perturbs the sacred trust between patients and doctors!