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Homeopathic health claims broke advertising code of practice, watchdog rules

The Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that homeopathic practitioners broke its code of practice by making health claims that discouraged ‘essential treatment’ for serious conditions.

The advertising watchdog’s decision found against two statements made online by the Society of Homeopaths, which claimed there was a ‘growing body of research’ supporting homeopathic treatment for a range of conditions.

The ASA criticised the society for discouraging ‘essential treatment’ for conditions such as depression, bronchitis, childhood diarrhoea and influenza.

The ASA investigated two statements made by the society. The first was on its Twitter page, with a tweet reading ‘Antidepressant prescriptions up by 43%. For more holistic healthcare which doesn’t rely on drugs try #homeopathy’ and a link to the society’s homepage. The second was a page on the society’s website which said there was ‘a growing body of research evidence suggesting that treatment by a homeopath is clinically effective, cost effective and safe’.

The ruling found that the tweet was targeted at ‘vulnerable patients’ and could ‘discourage essential treatment for depression, a medical condition for which medical supervision should be sought, and misleadingly implied that homeopathic remedies could alleviate symptoms of depression’.

The advert on the society’s website also breached the Committee of Advertising Practice Code, the ASA found. It said the code stated that marketers must ‘not offer treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought, unless that treatment was conducted under the supervision of a suitably qualified health professional’. As ‘homeopath’ is not a protected title, the advert broke the code, it said.

The society argued the sentence ‘for more holistic healthcare which doesn’t rely on drugs try #homeopathy’ complied with the code because it merely described homeopathy as a more holistic form of healthcare.

It also said there was indeed a growing body of evidence that supported the efficacy of homeopathy. However, the ASA ruled that the research was not sufficiently robust.

Readers' comments (20)

  • Tap the research ten times with leather and horse hair and it'll be exeptionally powerful research.

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  • Treating mild to moderate depression with SSRI's is equivalent to placebo treatment according to the meta-analyses. Expensive way for us to be using placebos? Or is severe depression up 43%?

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  • I am a supporter of homeopathy. It saved my life. The readers here may be interested in the article by Jerome Burne of the UK about the those who have been involved in reporting homeopathic remedies to the ASA. The title of the article is “Why Hounding Homeopaths is Both Batty and Arrogant” and can be easily found by searching the internet. It is a shame that this healing practice is opposed by many who are neither practicing homeopaths, have been treated by a classical homeopath, are involved in any of the health sciences as a physician, pharmaceutical chemist or pharmacologist. It is my position that those who trash homeopathy cannot therefore speak with any authority with regard to mainstream or homeopathic health care.

    http://jeromeburne.com/2013/06/27/why-hounding-homeopaths-is-both-batty-and-arrogant/

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  • Homeopathy has been the greatest blessing of my life. It gave me back a real, satisfying and productive life after the disabling effects of an auto accident. Con med couldn't help me so I turned to homeopathy. Before finding it I suffered from chronic insomnia. It was so debilitating I could hardly get through the day. All con med had to offer was addictive pills. Homeopathy resolved the problem safely, gently, dynamically, permanently and inexpensively.

    This judgement by the ASA says homeopathy shouldn't be advertised as a treatment for bronchitis. I found it treated my chronic bronchitis very effectively. On top of that, it hasn't come back in some 10 years because I continued with homeopathic constitutional treatment.

    The people who filed these claims against homeopaths are very much mistaken as is the judgement.

    There is a large body of scientific evidence supporting the homeopathic treatment of the conditions mentioned on the Society of Homeopaths web page. Some of it can be seen at:

    www.nationalcenterforhomeopathy.org/articles-research

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  • Sandra Courtney says, "It is a shame that this healing practice is opposed by many who are neither practicing homeopaths, have been treated by a classical homeopath, are involved in any of the health sciences as a physician, pharmaceutical chemist or pharmacologist. It is my position that those who trash homeopathy cannot therefore speak with any authority with regard to mainstream or homeopathic health care. ."

    That's a very convenient position to take and one frequently observed in devotees of the cult of homeopathy.

    The article she promotes is by Jerome Burne, who is nether a practicing homeopath, nor has he been treated by one, nor is he a physician, chemist or pharmacologist. He declares he is "agnostic about homeopathy" and he fully appreciates the "apparent absurdity of the mechanism" but goes on to say he knows people who swear it works for them and suggests it's the placebo effect.

    Jerome Burn's article is simply a diatribe against the Nightingale Collaboration for the apparently heinous crime of challenging false claims in healthcare advertising and reporting these to the Advertising Standards Authority. It has been rebutted both in the comments beneath and especially here:

    http://www.skepticat.org/2013/07/a-bad-week-for-homeopaths-but-a-great-one-for-the-nightingale-collaboration/

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  • When patients ask me about alternative/ otc treatments, i explain that medicine is mega-big business. If a particular homeopathy practitioner could prove their treatment work they could patient it and market it like other medications.

    Prozac made scores of billions of dollars, the fact that they have not done the above surely suggests they can't?

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  • Homeopathic medicines have been proven safe and effective over 200 years of clinical use in hundreds of millions of people around the world. That's why homeopathy is the second most used system of medicine in the world today. It's use is growing at rates of 10% to 30% in countries around the world.

    That, perhaps, explains the current attacks on it?

    Homeopathy has also been proven safe and effective in a wide array of conditions in 200 studies published in 102 respected, national and international peer-reviewed journals such as BMJ, Lancet, Rheumatology, Cancer, Pediatrics and Archives of Emergency Medicine. Some of those studies can be seen at:

    www.nationalcenterforhomeopathy.org/articles-research
    www.extraordinarymedicine.org
    http://avilian.co.uk

    There are many studies showing homeopathy is effective in the conditions the ASA judgment mentions such as depression, allergies, arthritis and fibromyalgia.

    There are some 20 studies showing it's effective in treating allergies and asthma. One example is this study showing that people who use homeopathy have six times fewer symptoms and are able to reduce their use of anti-histamines by 50%:

    www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2876326

    This study not only proves homeopathy is effective in treating fibromyalgia but also proves it is more effective than con med:

    www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19358959

    This study shows homeopathy is effective as both an anti-depressant and an anti-anxiety treatment:

    Carvalho, J.C.T., et al.
    International Journal of High Dilutions Research, 2011

    This study shows that 55% of the homeopathy group treated for osteoarthritis achieved measured relief as compared to 38% in the group receiving acetaminophen:

    Shealey, C.N., et al.
    American Journal of Pain Management, 1998

    This study of people with rheumatoid arthritis showed that 82% of the homeopathy group got relief with homeopathy.

    "Homeopathy therapy in rheumatoid arthritis: Evaluation by double-blind clinical therapeutic trial"
    British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 1980

    Bryan:

    Single homeopathic remedies are not patentable because they're natural substances. It isn't possible (or legal) to patent nature. Compound medicines are patentable because they're proprietary formulas.

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  • @Sandra Courtney, @Christine Jahnig:

    Your personal anecdotes may be interesting to yourselves (and I'm glad you are both well), but they're irrelevant to the subject of this article, which is about advertisers being able to substantiate claims they made.

    Christine Jahnig said:

    "The people who filed these claims against homeopaths are very much mistaken as is the judgement."

    As is stated in the adjudication, it was clearly instigated by the ASA themselves as a result of general concerns of many members of the public about widespread claims made by homeopaths. And just as well they did as they found none of the claims made could be substantiated by good evidence, ruling that the Tweet and the ad by the Society of Homeopaths breached the advertising code on no less than 35 counts.

    I'm surprised you think that being concerned at questionable claims is 'mistaken'. That is what the ASA are there for: to consider complaints and to rule on them, to ensure adverts are 'legal, decent, honest and truthful'. Do you agree that is a noble aim?

    You also said:

    "There is a large body of scientific evidence supporting the homeopathic treatment of the conditions mentioned on the Society of Homeopaths web page. Some of it can be seen at:

    www.nationalcenterforhomeopathy.org/articles-research"

    Well, maybe. But that does raise the question as to why the Society of Homeopaths - what appears to be the pre-eminent trade body for UK homeopaths, with over 1,400 members - didn't provide that evidence to the ASA in support of their claims or, if they did, why the ASA ruled that it did not meet their high standards?

    Christine Jahnig also said:

    "Homeopathic medicines have been proven safe and effective over 200 years of clinical use in hundreds of millions of people around the world. That's why homeopathy is the second most used system of medicine in the world today. It's use is growing at rates of 10% to 30% in countries around the world."

    No. Homeopathy has not been proven effective, regardless of the number of people who buy and sell it. And until homeopaths are able to provide that robust evidence of efficacy, it does not merit the accolade 'medicine'.

    But I'm intrigued why you say homeopathy has been 'proven safe'. Perhaps you could explain?

    "That, perhaps, explains the current attacks on it? "

    No. Complaints are being submitted because homeopathists make misleading claims about it; ones they cannot substantiate with good evidence. These misleading claims prevent consumers from making fully informed healthcare choices and that concerns me and many others.

    "This judgement by the ASA says homeopathy shouldn't be advertised as a treatment for bronchitis. I found it treated my chronic bronchitis very effectively. On top of that, it hasn't come back in some 10 years because I continued with homeopathic constitutional treatment."

    Do you think it would be correct for the ASA to revise their ruling because of your anecdote that 'it worked for you'?

    Would you like 'Big Pharma' to be granted the same concessions? I certainly wouldn't.

    Alan Henness
    Director
    The Nightingale Collaboration
    Challenging misleading healthcare claims

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  • Sandra Courtney

    The commenter on my 'skepticat' blog, whom you quote, is not a 'member of the Nightingale Collaboration'. He is, evidently, just another member of the public angered at the false claims being widely promoted on homeopaths' websites. His behaviour gets no endorsement from me and, as can be seen in his next comment, he apologises.

    For the record, the Nightingale Collaboration is not a membership organisation. It is a pressure group run by just Alan Henness and myself.

    I note you make no attempt to engage with the actual content of my blog, which refutes the Burne's article you seem intent on spamming this thread with.

    For the benefit of other readers, I'll take this opportunity to point out that in the Burne's article, he wrongly claims that the Nightingale Collaboration planned a protest outside the Advertising Standards Authority's offices recently. In fact the protest was staged by a few supporters of the homeopathic group HMC21, who were demanding the right to be held to a lower standard of evidence that other healthcare advertisers and, indeed, advertisers in general.

    The adjudication against HMC21 was published on the same day as that against the Society of Homeopaths and a cursory reading of it reveals that HMC21 were not able to provide the minimum standard of evidence required by the ASA for claims made promoting any healthcare therapy, namely that of “adequately controlled experimental human study”.

    Doesn't seem much to ask but for some reason they just couldn't manage it.

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