The UK’s Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) seems to have hit on the perfect formula to enrage homeopaths, and indeed anyone interested in fair debate and freedom of speech: ignore all the evidence in favour of homeopathy so that homeopaths can say virtually nothing in advertisements. Et voilà! Civil disobedience

Attacking Supplement Adverts (ASA)

When the UK government extended the ASA’s mandate to online advertisements in March 2011, and the ASA updated its Code of Advertising Practice (CAP Code) to become an enforcer of the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR; No. 1924/2006), the ASA inevitably became an enemy of natural healthcare.

Homeopaths have been a prime target in this regard. The latest episode in this ongoing saga involved an advertisement by the campaign organisation Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century (H:MC21).  H:MC21 appealed the ASA’s original 2011 ruling and submitted a complaint about the ASA’s investigation process, citing the ASA’s refusal to read evidence, misrepresentation of evidence and acting beyond its competence, among other reasons.

Amazingly Slippery Arguments

On 3rd July 2013, the ASA published its decision on H:MC21’s appeal. It’s essentially similar to its initial adjudication, with the same complaints upheld and rejected. We’re not here to take a critical microscope to the ASA’s reasoning – anyone interested can read H:MC21’s own critique. What we will say is that anyone who can dismiss the evidence on homeopathy in the way the ASA has done simply isn’t playing it either fair or objectively. 

Allied Skeptics Applaud

The ASA publicly distanced itself from the Nightingale Collaboration at the end of 2011. So it was something of a surprise when the Nightingale Collaboration released an article distastefully welcoming “a victory for consumer choice” on the day the ASA’s ruling was published – especially when the H:MC21 and several UK Members of Parliament weren’t aware of the publication date. 

Authority Somewhat Assumed

The ASA has no in-house scientific expertise, so it relies on external ‘experts’ when required.  H:MC21 were told that the ASA’s ‘expert’ in their appeal case was a pharmacologist, with knowledge of drugs and clinical trials but no expertise in homeopathy. This may go some way to explaining why the ASA relies so rigidly on RCTs for substantiation of homeopathy-related claims, even though neither of the sections of the Code on Advertising Practice (CAP Code) most often cited in this case – Section 3 and Section 12 – specifically mentions them.

Advertising Stopped Altogether

The effect of the ASA’s H:MC21 ruling, combined with a separate adjudication published on the same day concerning the Society of Homeopaths (SoH), will be to prevent homeopaths from making any claims in their advertising. The SoH has responded by removing its ‘What can homeopathy help?’ page, but H:MC21 has opted for a completely different route. 

An open letter to the ASA published on the H:MC21 website on 9th July, “Rejects the adjudication of The Advertising Standards Authority Ltd, published on 3 July 2013. H:MC21 will take no account of this opinion in any of its future advertising”. Furthermore, "[The ASA] has adopted a position which renders all evidence in support of homeopathy inadmissable, regardless of how this evidence is gathered. Such a position is legally and scientifically absurd.

“This pronouncement by the Advertising Standards Authority Ltd. comes as an apparent world-wide campaign of homeopathy denigration is increasingly halted in its tracks,” observed former H:MC21 Chairman, Paul Burnett, in a conversation with ANH-Intl. “The New Zealand Press Council recently ruled that an article and editorial saying that homeopathy was mere placebo effect was ‘highly derogatory, inaccurate and misleading’. The ‘Global Indian of the Year 2013’ award has been given to the ‘renowned homeopath Dr Mukesh Batra’, who went on record as saying,  “In the past decade, homeopathy has been going from strength to strength in India and across the world”.  In Brazil, certain homeopathy denigrators were reportedly declared persona non grata and expelled from the country. 

“Great concern has rightly been expressed by a growing number of politicians. As more and more around the world know homeopathy to be ‘effective, safe and cost-effective’, politicians and businesspeople alike may wish to reflect on whether there is real potential for impairment of this country’s reputation for scientific and ethical integrity as the UK seeks to develop its worldwide trade.”

The letter also points out that, as a private company set up originally to oversee self-regulation of the advertising industry, the ASA holds no statutory powers. All it can do is publish its decisions on the ASA website and report continued offenders to the UK Office of Fair Trading. Is it time for some enterprising lawyers to look into whether the ASA is guilty of misrepresentation under Section 2 of the Fraud Act 2006?

Acknowledging Sound Action

For us, it’s about time that someone called the ASA out on its blatantly biased, even rigged, procedures as H:MC21 has done. What appears to be a concerted campaign to remove the free speech of a certain section of the population – namely, natural healthcare practitioners – may well succeed unless the intended victims offer some resistance. We await developments with interest, and will keep you informed.

Call to action

  • Don’t be influenced by the ASA’s anti-homeopathy stance: it’s a highly effective modality for many conditions, if administered by a competent practitioner – and it’s completely safe!
  • Support your local homeopath: you can find a practitioner list at the Society of Homeopaths or the British Homeopathic Association
  • Please resist efforts being made to prevent NHS delivery of homeopathy. In particular, UK citizens should sign the petition to save Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital