Last night we attended a meeting in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, where we saw the UK Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) Director of Complaints and Investigations, Miles Lockwood, attempting to pour oil on some very troubled waters. The meeting was brokered by David Tredinnick MP, in his role of chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Integrated Healthcare meeting last night at the House of Commons.

The ASA-skeptics link

Relations between the ASA and the Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) community have hit an all-time low this year since the extension of the ASA’s remit to regulate online marketing and media. The ASA has received 774 complaints against the CAM sector since 1st March 2011, the majority of which were initiated by skeptic group, The Nightingale Collaboration.

Is the ASA competent to adjudicate on CAM issues?

Despite Mr Lockwood’s assertions that the ASA is approachable and genuinely open to continuing dialogue with the CAM community, he was adamant that there will be no shift in position on the important issue of using subject-matter experts in investigations. Boiling things down to the essentials, the question of whether the ASA and its chosen experts are competent to investigate CAM evidence is at the heart of the debate.  

Comments such as that from Vena Raffles, Head of Investigations, when she likened the assessment of CAM evidence to that of roofing and guttering at our meeting in August, does nothing to engender confidence that practitioners are going to get a valid or appropriate investigation. The fact that they are still refusing to engage in meaningful dialogue over this issue makes last night seem more of a slick PR stunt on the part of the ASA, than any real commitment to change.

Genuine change or a PR stunt?

Mr Lockwood was at pains to present the ASA as an unbiased, non-discriminatory organisation that acts independently of pressure groups in its investigations and is open to dialogue with the CAM community. He described the organisation as a “one stop shop for complaints across all media” and stressed that the codes of practice to which they work are not their [the ASA’s] codes, but codes that belong to industry — industry that includes the CAM sector.  The inference here was that if we don’t like the codes of practice we should have said so during the public consultations back in 2008 when the new Codes of Advertising Practice (CAP) were written. This raises two interesting points that were highlighted at the meeting last night. In the first instance, the CAM community don’t regard the dissemination of information that relates to their practice as ‘marketing’ in the way interpreted by the ASA. Secondly, the CAM community could never have known in 2008 that the ASA’s remit would be extending in 2011 to all online/digital media or that the ASA would interpret so much of the communications about practice as ‘marketing’ or that they would clamp down using the bully tactics that they have employed in 2011. 

Take home points

In summary, the main positive coming out of the meeting — clearly intended to ensure a favourable hearing given the audience of a significant number of homeopaths — was that the ASA has apparently severed its connection with the Nightingale Collaboration and prevented it from deluging the system with hundreds of complaints. This has put paid to the ‘one modality a month’ threat that was the central plank to Nightingale’s attack on CAM therapies and this change has reduced the flood of complaints to little more than a drip. There are only 38 of the 774 complaints still ongoing. New policies have been put in place to deal with persistent complainants and similar future situations and the ASA stressed it is open to working with trade bodies and professional associations to give advice and guidance to the sector. Apparently it is also willing to look at new evidence providing it contains at least one double-blind placebo controlled trial “or similar”. Worryingly the ‘or similar’ was added verbally to the sentence, but wasn’t on the slide presentation. With trials of this nature being inappropriate for much of CAM therapies, we are keen to see how willing the ASA is to explore the ‘or similar’ options now that Mr Lockwood is in the driving seat.

On a less savoury note, agreements have been made between the ASA and Google to secure the removal of paid advertisements for non-compliers. They can also interfere with searches and put up adverts of their own to indicate where an individual, organisation or advert has been found to be guilty of non-compliant advertising. This makes it all the more important to ensure that the investigators are competent to do so and that the acceptable evidence is widened to include that which is appropriate for CAM. We look forward to knocking again on the ASA’s door now that we have Mr Lockwood’s assurance that it is open.

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