Advertising Standards Authority unveil their Hall of Shame

Yesterday, the Advertising Standards Authority inducted the first members into their Hall of Shame.

Their Misleading Online  Advertisers page (EDIT 04/02/12 now ‘Non-compliant’ online advertisers), tantalisingly online yet empty since the digital remit was extended this March, now lists four culprits – three of whom are in the Alternative Health sector. Two of these specialise in Reiki Healing - a form of ‘energy healing’ which, though some people find pleasant and relaxing, lacks plausibility and evidence of efficacy for any condition.

The four guilty parties are Samantha Pearce, Allan Sweeney, Life Healthcare (t/a Life Natural Cures) and Vistaprint.

Her Sam’s Healing Hands website continues to make outlandish, irresponsible and unsubstantiated claims about the supposed  health benefits of Reiki, despite repeated requests for assurance of future compliance by the CAP Compliance team. She continues to claim:

  •     Reiki healing can help with stress relief, sinusitis, menstrual problems, M.E. eczema, arthritis, menopausal problems, back pain, depression and insomnia.
  •     Reiki is effective for both chronic and acute conditions and is suitable for everyone, from the young to the elderly.

The ASA published an adjudication against Allan Sweeney in July of this year, regarding some shocking statements made on his company website, suggesting that Reiki is effective against a range of conditions including depression, tinnitus and even cancer. Sweeney failed to respond to the ASA following the original complaint and is apparently continuing to ignore their demands, with his website still boasting the following claims:

Effective therapies offered include for cancer, ADHD, back pain, migraine, depression, anger, low energy, sleeplessness, ADD, sadness, bereavement, tinnitus, and sciatica.

Cancer therapy – click here to learn more   This two-week program helps every level of being of a cancer patient, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  We have had success even for patients who had lost hope. 

While I understand that some people may feel therapies such as Reiki help them cope better and to relax, any claims of medical efficacy beyond placebo are clearly ludicrous. It is of particular concern that Sweeney could be discouraging essential treatment for which proper medical advice should be sought – especially with respect to cancer. Since he states ‘we have had success even for people who have lost hope‘, I feel he is implying that he is actually able to treat and possibly even cure the cancer itself.

The Cancer Act (1939) states that

No person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement—containing an offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof

It is quick and easy to report offenders, either by using the Consumer Direct website (also available via Fishbarrel), or by contacting your local Trading Standards office.

(EDIT: I have just discovered that there was also an adjudication against Sweeney in 2001 – for making misleading claims about cancer, a range of other conditions including schizophrenia and for calling himself ‘Dr’)

Life Healthcare (t/a Life Natural Cures)

(EDIT 10/10/11 I have edited this post in response to a legal request from a foreign company also called Life Healthcare. I must point out that the named and shamed company is based in Jersey and trading under the name ‘Life Natural Cures’. I am following the lead of the UK Advertising Standards Authority in using the company name ‘Life Healthcare’.)

(EDIT 04/01/12 There was another adjudication against Life Healthcare today, who are no longer appearing on the Misleading Online Advertisers list.)

The CAP Compliance team has contacted Life Healthcare (t/a Life Natural Cures) on several occasions about problem claims regarding Celabolin pills and cream – which are clearly still visible on the website today…

Further reading on their site reveals that they seem to be making misleading claims about a wide variety of products (including a product which apparently replicates the effects of Viagra without the unpleasant side effects).

It is also clear that  this company are long-term repeat offenders. They have previously had three complaints upheld against them: about a leaflet making misleading claims about a ‘Thyroid Support Formula’; catalogues also making problematic claims about a number of supplements and creams, and a magazine insert advertising a ‘herbal supplement’ which could supposedly ‘dramatically improve sex for men and women’ by giving you ‘stronger longer-lasting erections’, boosting sexual and muscular performance and increasing blood surges to all body parts. There are also details here of another complaint about them – again regarding misleading claims about their thyroid support formula.

This company have the dubious honour of being the only company listed that are not in the Alternative Health sector. Vistaprint have continued to quote prices exclusive of VAT on their website, despite repeated requests by the ASA to either amend this or provide evidence that the majority of their customers either pay no VAT or are able to recover it.

What happens next..?

As the ASA explain on their Sanctions page, their main aim is to ensure that advertisers comply with the Codes, rather than to punish them. But they do have sanctions at their disposal for those who choose to ignore them. Possible sanctions include ad alerts to the media, withdrawal of trading privileges, pre-vetting and sanctions in the digital space – for example asking search websites to remove a marketer’s paid-for search advertisements.

If an advertiser refuses to comply with the ASA, as appears to have been the case here, they state that:

The ASA Chief Executive is able to refer the advertiser to the Office of Fair Trading for legal proceedings under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 or the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008.

It will be interesting to see how effective the naming and shaming will be – or whether further action will be necessary.

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16 responses to “Advertising Standards Authority unveil their Hall of Shame

  1. The Honorary Doctor Allan Sweeney may well believe that the claims for cancer support don’t count if the link to ‘crestcancerclinic.com’ doesn’t work. (The copied link in JJ’s link also takes you to a ‘domain for sale’ page.) The email link to the crestcancerclinic on the reiki-healing.com website sends any email to ‘allan.sweeney@reiki-healing.com’.
    It’s also instructive to Google ‘”Reiki Oneness World Network” -Sweeney’ (the ‘-Sweeney’ will omit all references to the ‘doctor’) to find other members of this organisation.

  2. You may be right – he is aware of the Cancer Act and has been warned about it in the past. It wouldn’t surprise me if the cancer site is deliberately left unfinished because of this. He told the ASA in 2001 (adjudication linked above) that he believed he was adhering to the Cancer Act. He said he hadn’t meant to imply Reiki could cure Cancer (I think whether that was true is doubtful, since he used the word ‘cure’ in the heading).They warned him to take legal advice and it appears he has toned down his advertising slightly since then.

    Since the Cancer Act goes as far as saying you shouldn’t even ‘give advice in connection with the treatment’ of cancer or offer to ‘treat’ any person for cancer, I believe he is still in breach of it. He does after all advertise a ‘Cancer Clinic’ and that he can give ‘effective therapies for cancer’ and ‘groundbreaking help’. But I’m not a lawyer.

    Googling his name also turns up some interesting results. For example, he was ‘Exposed’ as a ‘dodgy Dr’ by the Daily Mirror following his 2001 adjudication (http://blogs.mirror.co.uk/investigations/2001/08/brought-to-heal.html) and has another website advertising his books, where he describes himself as a ‘multi-talented author’.

  3. Although I made a decision not to blog about this, I must at least comment on the ASA Sucks campaign – a childish, unprofessional and anonymous response to the Hall of Shame (http://www.asa-sucks.org.uk/default.htm). I can’t see that it will do the quacks’ cause any favours.

    It has been covered over at JREF http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1461-uk-alt-med-practitioners-are-feeling-pain.html and parodied in glorious detail here: http://www.asa-rocks.org/default.htm – though interestingly, some of the original highlights (eg SIMON SINGH YOU SUCK BIGTIME) have now disappeared.

  4. The ASA Sucks site have now toned down their approach somewhat. For example, they are no longer shouting ‘YOU SUCK!’ at the ASA Execs and no longer mention Simon Singh at all. Here is their own summary (from their ‘Contact’ page http://www.asa-sucks.org.uk/contact/contact-asa-sucks.htm):

    “When we first launched this campaign this website took a more aggressive approach to the ASA. We received a lot of very positive support but some supporters did think we were going a step too far.

    Our overall feel from that response was that many CAM practitioners are running scared of the media and the sceptics. While we have respected the majority of requests asking us to be a bit more polite in the way we fight back against the unfair attacks we believe strongly that the industry should unite to fight injustice.

    If you are a genuine CAM practitioner, we welcome your views and will review any aspect of our campaign as the feedback comes into info@asa-sucks.org.uk

    Please note that as we also get feedback from nutter “sceptics” (their word not ours) we will only take into account email addresses that tie into CAM practitioner websites.”

    It is interesting that they get the impression many practitioners are ‘running scared’ of the media and sceptics… It is also interesting that they describe sceptics who have contacted them as ‘nutters’. I haven’t engaged with them myself, incidentally.

  5. In response to a legal request, I have edited this post to make it clear that Life Healthcare are trading as ‘Life Natural Cures’ and based in Jersey. I am referring to them as ‘Life Healthcare’ because I am following the ASA’s lead.

  6. The organisers of the asa-sucks website, while claiming “Honest Decent and Truthful” as one of their objectives for the ASA, have an abusive attitude towards the statistics that they promote in their cause. The Statistical Bulletin from the Office of National Statistics to which they refer does not use the phrase “side effect” (implied by asa-sucks as a cause of death). In fact, the Bulletin makes only a vague overall distinction between suicide and accident directly attributed to a drug or a combination of drug(s) and other factors. And they very carefully add these caveats to the data shown in Table 3 from which asa-sucks extracts their information:
    “These figures need to be interpreted with caution for the following reasons:
    • These figures are based on information reported on the coroner’s death certificate, and may not include all substances involved in the death
    • In around 12 per cent of drug poisoning deaths only a general description is recorded on the coroner’s certificate of death (such as drug overdose or multiple drug toxicity). These deaths do not contribute to the count of specific substances
    • In an additional 30 per cent of all drug poisoning deaths, the death certificate mentions more than one specific drug. Where more than one drug is mentioned, it is not always possible to tell which of them was primarily responsible for the death
    • Where more than one drug is mentioned on a death certificate the death will be counted in more than one category in Table 3. For example, if both heroin and cannabis are mentioned, the death will be recorded once under heroin and once under cannabis. Therefore the numbers for different substances cannot be added together to give a total number of deaths
    • Approximately a third of all drug-related poisoning deaths also contain a mention of alcohol or long-term alcohol abuse (for example cirrhosis) in addition to a drug.”
    So some deaths are double-counted, in some instances the drug is not recorded as the cause of death, or the drug exacerbated a pre-exisiting condition.
    Most telling is the comment on diazepam, AKA Valium, not usually fatal when taken alone although withdrawal can be life-threatening following excessive doses (according to Wikipedia). It is particularly dangerous when taken with alcohol or other drugs as the Bulletin says: “However, the role of diazepam and other benzodiazepines in drug-related deaths is not clear, as 9 out of 10 deaths involving benzodiazepines [including diazepam] also mention another drug.” In other words, death is not commonly one of the side-effects of diazepam, nasty side as the side-effects are.
    Talk about data mining.
    I don’t suppose there are any figures relating to deaths related to CAM medications: sugar pills and water tend not to be fatal.
    Apologies for the lecture.

    • I would suggest you contact the site with your concerns but don’t hold your breath… They’ve already admitted they do not intend to respond to what they term ‘nutter “sceptics”‘. You could also try contacting the rival ASA Rocks site (http://www.asa-rocks.org/discussion.htm) who are more likely to give you a sensible response.

      I’m actually in the process of writing a blogpost about ASA Sucks – though I admit I’m not going into the level of detail either you or the ASA Rocks site have in debunking their outbursts!

      • Sorry – got carried away. The misuse of statistics always upsets me.
        Simon Singh is still maligned on the asa-sucks ‘About’ page.
        Incidentally, the owner of the site is hidden behind a host who guarantees the owner remains anonymous.

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  8. Ah yes, I had missed that. He is a ‘wannabe celebrity scientist with a background in maths and cryptography’ and the Nightingale Collaboration are ‘trying to promote increased use of pharmaceutical drugs’.

    The site’s being updated so much it’s hard to keep up.

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  10. Felicia Villegas

    I just had quiet an experience with Vistaprint. I usually buy from them all time so I was excited when I received an email this afternoon offering me ten free items plus free shipping. I spent almost an hour designing my free products. At checkout my total was over $25 for shipping. Of course I called customer service to only be told their was no such promotion. I sent a copy of the email and the rep put me on eternal hold. He came back and stated I had to buy $30 worth to get free shipping. I ended up hanging up on him because of his rudeness. I called back to another rep and explained the situation. She was not helpful at all. I think this is very misleading and false advertisement. No where on the email does it state anything about buying $30 worth. I can’t believe they are still sending emails like this after they just go in trouble!

  11. I note there are a couple of new company names in the Hall of Shame, including Home Shopping Selections (t/a Personal Choice), who have been persistently making misleading claims about ‘detox’ foot pads. The ASA said (here http://www.asa.org.uk/ASA-action/Misleading-online-advertisers/Home-Shopping-Selections-Ltd.aspx):

    “Marketers have tried in the past to establish that the human body accumulates toxins that can be purged. CAP and the ASA understand that the body’s liver and kidneys automatically detoxify and excrete many toxic materials, including metabolic wastes. Advertisers have previously tried to claim that foot pads or foot patches can detoxify the body. To date, neither CAP nor the ASA has seen evidence that these types of products can remove toxins from the body.”

    On the Personal Choice website (here http://www.personal-choice.co.uk/index.php/Health/DETOX-FOOT-PADS), they continue to claim:

    “The body stores toxins in fatty deposits that leads to people suffering a range of ailments from lack of energy, insomnia, to weight gain, various diseases and pain. Fortunately with help from how trees stop toxins, these can be easily removed from your body. Tree sap has been found to absorb and remove toxins, from the water it gets from soil to enable healthy growth. These amazing patches contain dried tree sap that removes toxins through the soles of your feet! Why are they applied to soles? Circulation of blood and lymphatic fluids (which move the toxins around in our body) reach their furthest point in the soles of the feet before being return ‘pumped’ back up into the higher portions of the body.”

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