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Advertising authority clampdown on homeopathy

The Advertising Standards Authority has ordered online homeopathy advertisers to stop making claims that their treatments work.

The ASA’s remit was extended to regulating websites in March, since when it says it has received more than 150 complaints about claims for the efficacy of homeopathy.

While it carries out a “wider investigation” the ASA has told advertisers to delete content that “claims directly or indirectly that homeopathy and homeopathic products can diagnose/treat/help health conditions”.

“This is because the ASA considers there is insufficient robust scientific evidence to support these claims,” it said in a statement.

Speaking to Research Fortnight Today, David Colquhoun, University College London professor of pharmacology and alternative medicine critic, described the judgement as “very strong”. He said it put organisations like the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency to shame.

“[The MHRA] has really been shown up by the ASA essentially saying that things the MHRA allow are not permissible,” said Colquhoun. “That’s pretty bad considering the MHRA is supposed to be a specialist in these things.”

Following a consultation earlier this year, the MHRA, which regulates homeopathic products, no longer allows labels to claim that products are cures. However, it allows them to list disorders they are “traditionally used for”.

Colquhoun says he plans to put the question of discrepancy with the ASA to the agency.

In letters sent to advertisers of homeopathic products over the last three months, the ASA said it had not seen reliable or objective evidence to substantiate their claims.

The ASA is revisiting sites to see if changes have been made. Websites failing to comply will be formally investigated, giving advertisers an opportunity to defend their claims but leading to publication of an official adjudication on the ASA’s website.

“On the basis of the information we have so far, it is likely that the complaint would be upheld,” the ASA told advertisers.

According to Colquhoun, homeopaths in the UK are said to be “livid” about the ASA’s decision and are talking about suing the organisation.

Cristal Sumner, chief executive of the Faculty of Homeopaths, an organisation for registered healthcare professionals who are also homeopaths, told Research Fortnight Today that her organisation and the Society of Homeopaths, the biggest registering bodies for homeopaths in the UK, were engaged in a dialogue with the ASA on the advertising guidelines for homeopathy

“Each organisation is encouraging members to review their own respective websites to ensure they meet the ASA’s overarching aims that advertisements should be ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’,” she said.

“All members have been asked to back claims with evidence,” she noted. “This evidence includes a healthy number of randomised controlled trials and outcome studies.”

In an emailed statement to Research Fortnight Today, the ASA said that it had received assurances from many advertisers that changes would be made.

“We will decide how best to deal with any non-compliant websites in due course,” added a spokesman.