ASA respond to complaints about homeopathy websites

The Nightingale Collaboration's first Focus of the month concerned misleading claims made on homeopathy websites. Many of you told us about the websites you complained about and the misleading claims you had found.

The ASA has already responded to those first complaints, revealing that they received over 150 complaints about misleading claims on homeopathy websites. In an email sent to those who complained, they said:

ADVERTISING CLAIMS ON HOMEOPATHY WEBSITES

Thank you for your recent complaint.

As you may know, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has received over a hundred and fifty complaints about over a hundred different websites for homeopathy. Complaints cover a range of issues from specific claims made by individual advertisers to general concerns about the sector as a whole. Because of the volume of complaints, we are sending this letter to everyone who contacted us on these issues to let you know what action we intend to take.

The ASA has an established position on claims that can be made, and those claims that are not likely to be acceptable for homeopathy, based on the requirements set out in the CAP Code and previous ASA adjudications. Although we have not historically received many complaints about advertising for homeopathy, the Code has general requirements for substantiation of claims in the health sector and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) offers specific advice on marketing health-related products and services. Further information about the requirements of the advertising Code is available on our website www.asa.org.uk and from www.copyadvice.org.uk.

We are seeking to enforce compliance with the Code even-handedly across the sector by contacting all of the advertisers we have received complaints about as well as the bodies that represent homeopaths and homeopathy in the UK. We will be explaining the Code's requirements, giving advice on how to ensure advertising claims do not breach the Code, and asking advertisers to remove any claims which do not comply. More information about what that means in practice is provided in the CAP Help Notes on Substantiation for Health, Beauty and Slimming claims and Health, Beauty and Slimming Marketing Communications that Refer to Medical Conditions. You can find these documents on our Copy Advice website, as indicated above. Because the ASA has only been regulating websites since 1 March many of the advertisers we contact will not be familiar with us or the work we do and will need help and assistance from us. For that reason, we plan to monitor compliance 3 months after making our expectations of them clear. We feel that this will give advertisers, some of whom are very small and have limited resources, sufficient time to make the necessary changes.

The ASA will not be publishing individual adjudications on this occasion. We will however publish specific, up-to-date advice to the industry and its representative bodies in due course and we will work with them to ensure that advertising for homeopathy is compliant with the Code.

Thank you for taking the trouble to contact us. While you will not see immediate results please be assured that we are working hard in the background to resolve the issues that have been complained about.

We commend the ASA for responding so quickly to the large number of complaints. We know that many misleading claims have already been taken down from homeopathy websites and we expect that any remaining misleading claims will be removed once the ASA has written to the individual advertisers.

This is a fantastc result and this is what the Nightingale Collaboration is all about — ensuring that members of the public are not presented with healthcare claims that cannot be substantiated.

It is not essential that formal adjudications are published for these complaints: all that matters is that misleading claims are removed.

Grace period

Although the ASA rules only came into force on 1st March, they were fully announced over six months ago with pre-announcements about the ASA's digital remit extension long before that. This six-month period was specifically given and announced as a 'period of grace' so that advertisers had time to understand the ASA's rules, to seek advice from the ASA's free Copy Advice service or attend one of the ASA's training or advice seminars on offer and to change websites accordingly.

However, because of the extent of the problem, the ASA have decided to give homeopathy advertisers an additional three months in which to comply. It is unfortunate that the public may have to wait even longer before misleading claims are removed, but we appreciate that this is a pragmatic decision by the ASA.

Awareness

Whilst it is possible that some homeopaths might have missed the ASA's own advertising campaign — which included extensive commercial radio ads — it seems unlikely that the various homeopathy trade bodies were unaware of the impending requirement for websites to comply with the ASA's CAP Code. It would have been reasonable to assume that they had already taken action to inform their members. However, some of the recent ASA complaints were about misleading claims made by some of the leading members of these trade bodies on their own websites!

This is particularly surprising given that the Code of Ethics of one of the main homeopathy trade bodies, the Society of Homeopaths, who claim to represent 'professional homeopaths', have a clear requirement for their members to abide by ASA guidance:

All advertising must be published in a way that conforms to the law and to (the guidance issued in the British Code of Advertising Practice) [sic].

We can only hope that they will now start to take their responsibilities seriously and help ensure their members are not the subject of any further complaints.

In the ASA's email, they say they will be working with these organisations to ensure their members' websites comply with the CAP Code. It remains to be seen just how vigilant and thorough they and their members are. Given their past failings, there is not much to be optimistic about.

However, it goes without saying that those websites will be diligently monitored by others.

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