Homeopathy, celebrities and marketing
By Lee Turnpenny
Those who subscribe to the cult of homeopathy tend to be afflicted with a continually confused attitude to the concept of evidence. On Weds 25 November 2009, the House of Commons Science and Technology Sub-Committee convened for an Evidence Check on Homeopathy. Amongst the ‘witnesses’ was Dr Peter Fisher, Clinical Director and Director of Research at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (now the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine). Dr Fisher unashamedly described the process of succussion (forward to 11:06). In case you’re not familiar, this is the action of vigorously shaking/striking a vial of liquid in order to activate the memory of a substance (ie, the ‘remedy’) that has been diluted out of it, whilst simultaneously detoxifying the effects of all the other stuff the water will inevitably have come into contact with (because water is promiscuous stuff).
The Government Response to the Committee’s report concluded overall that:
‘By providing homeopathy on the NHS and allowing Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency licensing of products which subsequently appear on pharmacy shelves, the Government runs the risk of endorsing homeopathy as an efficacious system of medicine. To maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products.’
However, despite this concurrence, the Government then weasel-y left it to Primary Care Trusts to decide whether to continue wasting NHS funds on homeopathy, under the sopping guise of patient ‘choice.’ (Homeopathy enjoys sympathy among MPs – including from the Secretary of State for Health.)
The majority of homeopathic products licensed by the MHRA are registered under a 1992 Simplified Scheme that prohibits ‘indications’ – ie the associated description of disease/conditions, and medical/therapeutic claims thereon. These MHRA regulations on the advertising of medicinal products thus inform the Advertising Standards Authority, which on 1 March 2011 widened its scope to encapsulate marketing/advertising on UK websites. And thereafter received copious complaints about the online claims made by an array of homeopaths/homeopathy organisations (to the extent that it requested abeyance). The ASA contacted the complained-of advertisers – and those UK bodies that represent homeopaths and homeopathy. Its letter explicitly states:
‘You must remove any content from your website that claims directly or indirectly that homeopathy and homeopathic products can diagnose/treat/help health conditions.’
This letter (well worth a read, by the way) also informed addressees that their sites were under surveillance, with three months in which to comply with guidance on the marketing of health-related products and services, as stipulated by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP).
During British Homeopathy Awareness Week back in June last year I took umbrage with various homeopathy organisations’ cheap, egregious, fallacious resort to endorsement by celebrity, including (to take just one) the British Homeopathic Association. The British Homeopathic Association’s ‘Celebrity Photography Project’ comprises quite fetching images of partaking celebs ‘… holding the source material of one of the homeopathic medicines that has helped them’ . If I’ve piqued your interest then, rather than take up word space here with quotes, I urge you to peruse for yourself this Goof’s Gallery.
I’m sure these celebrities are being ‘genuine’, in that they believe what they say. (After all, they subscribe to a belief system for people who like to feel all “Speh-shull.”) But I found this puzzling. Doesn’t that ASA letter apply to ‘… those bodies that represent homeopaths and homeopathy in the UK…’? Which must surely, I figured, encapsulate the British Homeopathic Association. Indeed, the Association’s website proudly boasts:
‘The British Homeopathic Association exists to promote homeopathy practised by doctors and other healthcare professionals.’ (My emphasis in bold.)
I therefore decided to flag this up to the ASA, because, to my eye, these celebrities are not only making/implying ‘… claims directly or indirectly that homeopathy and homeopathic products can diagnose/treat/help health conditions’; but they also imply ‘indications’ for these products, the majority of which are listed as registered under the MHRA Simplified Scheme (which prohibits indications). The ASA letter contains a paragraph I find particularly pertinent here:
‘Please note that testimonials from patients (which must be genuine) that imply efficacy for homeopathic treatment do not constitute substantiation but may give a misleading impression that efficacy is proven. Therefore it is essential that any testimonials also only make general references to an improved sense of well-being.’
Clearly, these celebrity statements constitute patient testimonials which imply efficacy for (unsubstantiated) homeopathic treatments. It appears to me that this project overall constitutes website content that (at the very least) ‘… claims directly or indirectly that homeopathy and homeopathic products can diagnose/treat/help health conditions.’ Which, to reiterate, are ‘Claims you cannot make’ under the CAP Code, as applies to advertisers, ‘… as well as those bodies that represent homeopaths and homeopathy…’.
The ASA declined to pursue this apparent anomaly. I had also written to the MHRA, whose guidelines also prohibit celebrity endorsement, but was informed (even though the remedies named by the celebrities marry with product names in its registration listing) that it only concerns itself with direct advertising of ‘specific homeopathic medicinal product.’ As the BHA is not itself selling products, its celebrity endorsement falls outside the MHRA remit, as it constitutes promotional material, and on which it suggested I contact… the ASA. However, the ASA is likewise adamant that this complaint does not come under its remit (in apparent contradiction of its own letter) because the British Homeopathic Association is not itself directly supplying or transferring goods. So much for acting in the public interest.
Why does the British Homeopathic Association (and many other homeopathy-promoting bodies) seek testimonials, or mine for quotes, by celebrities? Just when does ‘raising awareness’ become ‘promotion’ become ‘advertising’? Although NHS support for homeopathy is on the wane (as of the end of last year, only 15% of PCTs were continuing to fund it), public money on this inefficacious ‘rubbish’ continues to be wasted, as chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies recently reminded the CST committee. And in order to circumvent the ASA’s imposition on the advertising of their wares, homeopaths and homeopathy organisations such as the British Homeopathic Association have resorted to the patronising logical fallacy that is the appeal to celebrity (presumed) authority. Although the British Homeopathic Association does not itself (as far as I am aware) supply products and services, it represents – and promotes indirectly on behalf of – those homeopaths/homeopathic product providers who do. As the latter are covered by the ASA remit and can no longer legitimately advertise, the British Homeopathic Association is, it seems to me, exploiting a loophole – through the under-the-radar guise of ‘awareness-raising’ celebrity testimonials, which, in my opinion, are in contravention of the CAP Code.
As if a ‘senior homeopath’ spouting aqueous nonsense without compunction to a parliament committee is not ridiculous enough. What we have here, in effect, is a situation wherein, if you sell or provide certain dubious products and/or services, but are barred from making claims as to their efficacy, you can happily watch your representative umbrella organisation, which does not itself directly supply/sell/provide those products/services, make those claims indirectly on your behalf. Hence this permitted proxy-promotion of indication-prohibited, homeopathy products through a bunch of docile celebrities. A snake-oil-lubricated loophole.