Press Council Complaint: Homeopathy in the Wairarapa Times-Age

In February this year, an article was published in the Wairarapa Times-Age (both in print and online) headlined Use of natural remedies is on the rise. The article discussed some specific cases of so-called “natural remedies” being used to treat serious diseases, such as intravenous vitamin C for leukaemia and homeopathy to treat various forms of cancer.

Except for a brief mention at the bottom of the article encouraging people with cancer to talk to their doctor before using any “alternative therapies”, there was no mention of the fact that none of the treatments discussed are supported by any reliable evidence. Instead, the article uncritically included various quotes such as this, from homeopath Claire Bleakley:

Featherston-based homeopath Claire Bleakley said she has treated cancer patients using similar natural remedies [to intravenous vitamin C] – significantly extending life expectancy.

She mentioned two of her patients in particular: A man with tumours who lived for seven years after being given two to live, and a woman with ovarian cancer who lived 15 years past her initial prognosis.

“There have been some exceptional results,” Mrs Bleakley said.

“We are indoctrinated to think chemotherapy is the only cure for cancer, but alternative [remedies] have been proven to be more life giving.”

Medical anecdotes such as these unfortunately tend to be very convincing despite the fact that they can also be completely misleading. The reasons why people might get better are varied and complex. Without running a controlled test, there’s no way to know whether or not a particular treatment contributed to an improvement in health. That’s exactly why we need to undertake rigorous clinical trials before we can say with confidence what the effects of any particular treatment are. It’s also why the Medicines Act prohibits the use of health testimonials like this in advertisements, although that restriction of course doesn’t extend to news articles in publications like the Times-Age.

I thought, and still do think, that the lack of balance in this article has the capacity to do serious harm. I wrote to the editor of the Wairarapa Times-Age to make my case, and to give some suggestions for how they might attempt to mitigate the damage this article could do, in a formal complaint:

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to you to make a formal complaint regarding the article “Use of natural remedies is on the rise” published in the Wairarapa Times-Age this morning:
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/wairarapa-times-age/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503414&objectid=11399310

This article uncritically promotes the use of so-called “natural remedies” such as vitamin C or homeopathy for the treatment of cancer. They are promoted by the inclusion of quotes such as “There have been some exceptional results”, regarding the treatment of cancer with homeopathic products.

None of the relevant controversy regarding these treatments is discussed in the article. Although there is a brief note at the end that “those living with cancer [are encouraged] to consult their doctor or specialist before embarking on any alternative therapies”, this does not sufficiently address the important and relevant fact that these treatments are entirely unsupported by scientific evidence, as well as the utter implausibility of treatments like homeopathy.

The failure to discuss the lack of scientific evidence supporting these treatments, as well as the complete lack of plausibility underlying homeopathy, violates the Press Council’s principle of “Fairness, Accuracy and Balance”. The description of this principle on the Press Council’s website states that:

“Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.

Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.”

This is not a long-running issue in which readers can readily be expected to be familiar with the lack of evidence supporting the treatments discussed in the article, so the exception should not apply. There is significant controversy surrounding the issues discussed in this article, but a fair voice has not been given to the opposition view.

Particularly as this article could lead to people living with serious diseases such as cancer to rely on ineffective treatments such as homeopathy, its lack of balance has the potential to cause real and serious harm. Therefore it is important that the Wairarapa Times-Age take appropriate action to prevent this harm by amending the article, publishing a prominent correction, or publishing a followup article linked to from today’s article, that discusses the lack of evidence and plausibility underlying the treatments discussed in today’s article.

If the Wairarapa Times-Age has trouble finding any experts to talk to about this topic, either the Society for Science Based Healthcare (http://sbh.org.nz/contact) or the Science Media Centre (http://www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz/contact-us/) will be able to help.

Sincerely,

Mark Hanna
Society for Science Based Healthcare

Despite sending a follow-up email a few days later, I still hadn’t heard back from the editor over the next 10 working days, which is the deadline set in the Press Council’s complaints process as the time to wait before escalating a complaint to them if you don’t hear back from the editor. After I forwarded my complaint to the Press Council, the editor contacted me to apologise that he’d overlooked my complaint messages, which was apparently due to his having to deal with another complaint about the same article from Peter Griffin, manager of the Science Media Centre (Peter is also the editor and manager of Sciblogs, where my blog is syndicated, and we’d discussed our complaints via email prior to submitting them).

When I forwarded my complaint to the Press Council, I fleshed it out a bit more. I won’t quote the whole thing here as a lot of it would just be repeating myself, although I’d be happy to share my full complaint if anyone would like to see it, but here is one part I added that I think is important and worth sharing:

As far as I’ve been able to tell, the Wairarapa Times-Age has not published a large number of articles regarding this, so it cannot be argued that the counterpoints have already been published in earlier articles.

When it comes to whether or not readers can be expected to be familiar with the important facts not mentioned in this article, I would like to bring the Press Council’s attention to a 2009 study (I am not aware of any more recent data collected on this) published in the New Zealand Medical Journal entitled “Beliefs about homeopathy among patients presenting at GP surgeries”. This study can be accessed for free on Page 94 of this PDF:
http://www.nzma.org.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/17794/Vol-122-No-1295-22-May-2009.pdf

This study found that only 8 out of 124 respondents disagreed to some extent that “There is good scientific evidence that homeopathy works”, and only 24 respondents reported that they believed homeopathic products were either “very dilute” or that there was “nothing there”. In contrast, 82 respondents agreed to some extent that “There is good scientific evidence that homeopathy works”, and 80 believed that homeopathic products are either “Very concentrated”, “Moderately concentrated”, or “Moderately dilute”.

Contrary to these common beliefs, most homeopathic products are diluted to the point that it is astronomically unlikely that there is even a single molecule of the original ingredient present in the product, and there effectiveness is thoroughly unsupported by scientific evidence. For example, a rigorous review undertaken by the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in 2013 investigated the evidence regarding homeopathy for 68 clinical conditions and concluded that “The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans”
(https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/your_health/complementary_medicines/nhmrc_homeopathy_overview_report_october_2013_140407.pdf)

For this reason, and especially because the article discussed the use of ineffective therapies in the treatment of terminal illness, it is very important that stories such as this be balanced. As I stated in my original complaint to the editor, I believe the article in its current form has the capacity to do serious harm and that the Wairarapa Times-Age has a responsibility to mitigate this harm. An appropriate response would be amending the article, publishing a prominent correction, or publishing a followup article linked to from the article from the 10th of February that discusses the lack of evidence and plausibility underlying the treatments discussed in today’s article.

(The NHMRC link I provide there is from their 2013 conclusion. Within 2 weeks of submitting this complaint, however, they released their final statement on homeopathy, which states “there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective”. This statement was not reported in the Wairarapa Times-Age)

Once the complaint was escalated to the Press Council, the editor of the Times-Age was given an opportunity to respond, then I had a final opportunity to write a short response to that. His primary argument was that the topic of “alternative medicine” was a long-running issue in a wider context, and that the exemption to the principle of balance should apply because other media have reported on the opposing side of the issue.

I strongly disagree with this argument. Although it’s true that media like the Wairarapa Times-Age do not exist in a vacuum, I don’t think this should mean that they don’t have a responsibility to provide balanced articles for their readers. The way I interpret the Press Council code, the exception can be useful when an article is part of a series of articles on the same issue, and when taken in the context of other articles in the series the overall view still maintains an appropriate balance. In the interest of balanced reporting, I believe exceptions to the principle of balance should be applied very sparingly.

Unfortunately, the Press Council disagreed with me. They have ruled not to uphold the complaint, and you can view their entire decision on their website here:
Case Number: 2426 MARK HANNA AGAINST WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

Here’s a link to their similar ruling regarding the complaint from the Science Media Centre:
Case Number: 2425 SCIENCE MEDIA CENTRE AGAINST WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

Here is a summary of their decision:

The Press Council agrees with the editor that the debate over alternative remedies is sufficiently well known not to require balancing comment in every story about them. The subject falls within the exception to the principle of balance for issues of enduring public discussion.

The complainant in this case raised the important question of whether the exception can be invoked for an article in a newspaper that may not itself have covered both sides of the debate. The Council considered this point closely and came to the view that the exception has not been applied as narowly as the complainant contends and should not be. A newspaper, even if it is the sole newspaper of its locality, does not exist in a vacuum. Its readers, meeting an uncritical story on the supposed popularity of homeopathy and natural remedies, are likely to be aware the efficacy of these treatments is strongly contested by medical science.

I think this is a very worrying precedent to set. Newspapers such as the Wairarapa Times-Age can now feel justified in publishing unbalanced articles on topics such as homeopathy without feeling bound to uphold the Press Council’s principle of balance. The public have a reasonable expectation, given that the Press Council exists to uphold standards in reporting and its first principle is that articles should be accurate, fair, and balanced. While it’s a good idea to take everything you read with a grain of salt, you should be able to feel justified in expecting media reports on controversial topics to provide a balanced view. I worry that people might read articles such as this with that assumption in mind, and falsely conclude that the views omitted from the article are not merited.

I’m also rather frustrated that the Press Council concluded that anyone reading articles such as this is “likely to be aware the efficacy of these treatments is strongly contested by medical science” even though I provided data from a survey that found only 6% of respondents disagreed that “there is good scientific evidence that homeopathy works”. I understand that the survey I cited was conducted 6 years ago, but as I said in my complaint I’m unaware of anything more recent.

Although I don’t think it is, I really hope that the Press Council’s conclusion that most people are aware that homeopathy is not supported by evidence is correct. Following last year’s story about Green MP Steffan Browning backing homeopathy for ebola and March’s story about the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council concluding that homeopathy does not improve people’s health, I think there is some basis to believe that more people are familiar with the lack of evidence surrounding homeopathy than 6 years ago, but I don’t expect there would be that large a difference.

One positive thing to take away from this, at least, is that the journalist who wrote the article said in a Facebook comment that she understood the article was unbalanced and that she should have done better. I hope she’ll take this as a learning experience and, when she or other Wairarapa Times-Age reporters write on matters of “natural health” in the future, that they get in touch with the Science Media Centre to provide that much-needed balance. If we can’t rely on the Press Council to hold journalists to a high standard of balanced reporting, then we’ll have to rely on journalists’ and editors’ own standards.

EDIT 2015/04/14 10:05 am: Peter Griffin, who also complained to the Press Council about this article, has published his thoughts on the ruling as well: When balance goes out the window

EDIT 2015/04/04 1:13 pm: The Wairarapa Times-Age has published a short article on this ruling: Times-Age supported by Press Council

EDIT 2015/04/14 2:21 pm: Grant Jacobs has also published a post with his thoughts on this ruling: Press Council rules on knowing readers minds?

EDIT 2015/04/15 2:51 pm: Andrew Bonallack, the editor of the Wairarapa Times-Age, has published his thoughts on the Press Council decision in an opinion piece for the Times-Age: Your right to choose sacrosanct

100% Natural and Chemical Free

This afternoon, the Advertising Standards Authority released their decision to uphold an interesting complaint regarding advertisements for a couple of cleaning products on a website. Here is the ASA’s description of how the products were described on the website:

The Wendyl’s website (http://wendyls.co.nz/) for “100% natural cleaning and beauty products” advertised their products as having “all their ingredients listed and contain no fillers, chemicals or synthetics.”

The webpage for Wendyl’s Oxygen Bleach 1KG (sodium Percarbonate) stated, in part:

This is powdered hydrogen peroxide which is a greener alternative to chlorine bleach because it breaks down to oxygen and water in the environment.

The webpage for Wendyl-San oxygen soaker 1KG stated, in part:

I’ve spent years testing this oxygen soaker and stain remover and I’m so glad to have something which is so free of chemicals and additives. Secret ingredient is sodium percarbonate, a powdered hydrogen peroxide bleach which breaks down in the environment to oxygen and water…

The complainant, food scientist Claire Suen, said that they breached the Advertising Code of Ethics and the Code for Environmental Claims. This excerpt is, I think, a good summary of their complaint:

The advertiser uses words such as “100% natural”, and “contains no fillers, chemicals, or synthetics”.

However, the product in question is sodium percarbonate, which is not a naturally occurring product. The main active ingredient, hydrogen peroxide, is also not a naturally occurring product and it is not stable in nature.

Both are synthetic chemicals.

After hearing from the advertiser as well, the Advertising Standards Complaints Board sided with the complainant. Here is a summary from the headnote of their decision:

The Complaints Board said it accepted the Advertiser’s view that “sodium percarbonate is a much safer and more environmnetally friendly alternative to chlorine bleach” but not that it was “chemical free” and “100% natural.” The Complaints Board said the advertisement was likely to mislead consumers into thinking the products were “100% natural” and “chemical free” when they actually contained naturally occurring chemicals, in breach of Principle 2 of the Code for Environmental Claims and had not been prepared with a due sense of social responsibility to consumers in breach of Principle 1 of the Code for Environmental Claims.

Accordingly, the Complaints Board ruled to Uphold the complaint.

The most interesting part of this complaint is, I think, who the advertiser is. As well as selling cleaning and beauty products online, Wendyl Nissen writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald called “Wendyl Wants To Know“. The Herald describes the column as:

Each week, Wendyl Nissen takes a packaged food item and decodes what the label tells you about its contents.

Have a look for yourself, but from the columns of hers that I’ve read it seems the main argument is typically along the lines of “natural is good, chemicals are bad”. So I find it very ironic that she’s now had a complaint upheld against her for misleadingly claiming that a product she sells is “100% natural” and “chemical free”.

For a counterexample to the attitude of “natural is good, chemicals are bad”, you need look no further than the “recipes” section of her website. There, she has some pet recipes which she makes available for free including one for De-Flea Powder for Cat Biscuits and another for Doggy De-Flea Treats. In both recipes, she claims the active ingredients are yeast and garlic:

The theory behind this powder is that fleas hate the taste of yeast and garlic so will hop off and look elsewhere.

Elsewhere on her website, she recommends that if you:

Put a garlic clove in your pet’s water you can help deter pests such as mites and fleas.

Although it certainly is natural, garlic is also toxic to cats and dogs, especially for cats. I couldn’t find any warnings about this on Wendyl Nissen’s website.

The lessons to be learned? Natural isn’t always good, and don’t take advertisers’ word for it when they claim something is “100% natural” or “chemical free”. As always, ask for evidence.

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 3: Running Out of Excuses

Ethical pharmacy practice is something I have written about before. If you’ve read those posts, please bear with me as I cover some familiar background.

In New Zealand, we are lucky enough to have an industry code of ethics for pharmacists, published by the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand, which holds pharmacists to high ethical standards. This code of ethics is the Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics. One of the most important parts of this code of ethics is section 6.9, which states:

[PHARMACISTS] MUST:… Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.

Pharmacy Council’s Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics Section 6.9

The Pharmacy Council of New Zealand isn’t a voluntary member organisation like the Pharmacy Guild or the Pharmaceutical Society. Instead the council is established as part of the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003. Their roles are set out in this act and include:

  • Registering pharmacists
  • Reviewing and maintaining the competence of pharmacists
  • Setting standards of clinical competence, cultural competence, and ethical conduct for pharmacists

Which means that the Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics is not a voluntary code of ethics. It is published by the body whose legal duty it is to set the standards of ethical conduct for pharmacists. Yet all over New Zealand, many pharmacists ignore it.

Walk into any New Zealand pharmacy. Chances are that you will find a section where they advertise and sell a range of homeopathic products. To anyone familiar with the evidence for homeopathy, it will come as no surprise when I tell you that there is no credible evidence of efficacy for any homeopathic product. Therefore, it seems to me, New Zealand pharmacists have an ethical obligation not to promote or sell them.

Yesterday, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) issued their final statement on homeopathy, following an incredibly extensive and rigorous review of the literature. They looked at over 1,800 scientific papers, and found that 225 met their criteria for methodological rigour, sample size, and placebo control. Their main finding was:

there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.

NHMRC Statement: Statement on Homeopathy

As I said, this conclusion does not come as a surprise. This research is the latest in a long line of reviews of the evidence for homeopathy that drew essentially the same finding:

  • A 2002 systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology concluded that:

    the hypothesis that any given homeopathic remedy leads to clinical effects that are relevantly different from placebo or superior to other control interventions for any medical condition, is not supported by evidence from systematic reviews. Until more compelling results are available, homeopathy cannot be viewed as an evidence-based form of therapy.

    A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy

  • A 2010 systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy published in the Medical Journal of Australia concluded:

    The findings of currently available Cochrane reviews of studies of homeopathy do not show that homeopathic medicines have effects beyond placebo.

    Homeopathy: what does the “best” evidence tell us?

  • A 2010 report from the UK House of Commons concluded:

    homeopathy is a placebo treatment.

    Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy

  • In 2013, the NHMRC published a report based on their research that found:

    There is a paucity of good-quality studies of sufficient size that examine the effectiveness of homeopathy as a treatment for any clinical condition in humans. The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans.

    Effectiveness of Homeopathy for Clinical Conditions: Evaluation of the Evidence

I could go on, but I hope by now you get the idea.


New Zealand pharmacists need to respond to the NHMRC’s research. And if they mean to practice responsibly and ethically, that response should be to immediately stop all promotion and sale of homeopathic products. The ethical standard to which they should be held is clear, and it is not consistent with promoting or supplying homeopathic products.

Last year, I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority under the auspices of the Society for Science Based Healthcare about a homeopathic product for preventing jet lag (No-Jet-Lag) that was advertised in Parnell Pharmacy. The pharmacy responded by removing the advertisement, and agreeing to stop selling the product if it was found that the claims were not supported by credible evidence, and my complaint was upheld. Unsurprisingly, my complaint was upheld when the ASA decided claims such as “it really works” were not supported by credible evidence. However, despite Parnell Pharmacy’s example, many New Zealand pharmacies still sell this exact product.

The NHMRC’s report represents the same finding, but on a larger scale. New Zealand pharmacists who promote and sell homeopathic products should follow the responsible example of Parnell Pharmacy, and remove homeopathic products from their shelves.

When Marketing Trumps Science

Recently I’ve run across a couple of New Zealand companies that sell therapeutic products – one a weight loss pill, the other a jet lag drink – that seem to put marketing first and let science take the back seat. This is by no means new behaviour, but I want to use them as examples to illustrate this widespread problem and suggest what can be done to combat it.

Before promoting a therapeutic product, you should first have good reason to believe that it works. This, I hope, is common sense, but it’s also enshrined in the Fair Trading Act and the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code as they prohibit unsubstantiated claims. This means you have to test the product, and do so rigorously. Rigorous clinical trials are expensive to undertake though, so they’re quite a prohibitive first step.

Instead of jumping straight into the deep end, a useful first step can be to undertake a smaller and less rigorous (and therefore less expensive) experiment. In order to answer the question of whether or not a product actually works you need to conduct a more rigorous trial. There’s a great cost involved in doing this, but if the results of a preliminary trial are optimistic then you have reason to expect a more rigorous trial might give similar results, so the expense might be worth it. You may even be able to get some funding to help with a more rigorous trial on the basis that the preliminary results were positive.


This is what Tuatara Natural Products has been doing with their weight loss pill “Satisfax”. They have completed a low quality preliminary trial on their product, which has been colloquially dubbed the “Fat Mates” trial. Although I don’t believe it has yet been published in a journal at the time I’m writing this article, it was registered retrospectively in the Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry: Effect of the dietary supplement Satisfax (Registered Trademark) on weight loss in overweight volunteers. Some information on the data in the trial can be found on their website as part of an analysis by Dr Chris Frampton: Analysis of Satisfax® Clinical trial

As you can see on the trial registration page, this was an uncontrolled trial on overweight adults. The original plan was to recruit 100 volunteers with the hope that at least 60 will complete the trial. I have to say I’m a bit confused about how many people were in the trial, as apparently the recruitment was increased to 200 applicants after applications opened (a change that has not been reflected in the trial’s registration) yet apparently about 400 people applied. One article claims there were 200 participants, a later media release from Tuatara Natural Products seems to imply 100 were recruited, and the analysis of the trial says there were only 81 participants. Either way, 81 participants completed the full 8 weeks, and 52 of them took the recommended dose for the whole duration of the trial.

If there were 19 or 119 participants who didn’t complete the trial, the statistical analysis seems to ignore them with no justification given. This is unusual – a 19% drop out rate is significant and shouldn’t be swept under the rug. A lot of the time Tuatara also seems to ignore the 29 participants who didn’t drop out but also didn’t take the full dose for the whole duration.

The Science Media Centre posted the responses of 2 experts, Associate Professor Andrew Jull and Professor Thomas Lumley, to a press release from Tuatara Natural Products in February. It’s a good analysis of some of the weaknesses with the study, and I recommend you read it: Kiwi diet pill claims – experts respond

This trial was uncontrolled, and therefore also unblinded and unrandomised. As Professor Lumley explains, this is a problem if you want to draw strong conclusions from its results. It is of low methodological quality, but that’s okay. There is no problem with doing less rigorous trials first if they’re done in order to determine if more rigorous trials are necessary. Dr Glenn Vile, Chief Technical Officer of Tuatara Natural Products and the principal investigator for this study, wrote the following in a comment on a post on the “Fat Mates” trial by Dr John Pickering:

The Fat Mates trial was designed by clinical trial specialists to generate information about the Satisfax® capsules that would help Tuatara Natural Products plan a larger and longer double blind, cross over, placebo controlled trial.

We will use this information to proceed with the next clinical trial, but in the meantime we were so excited the weight loss achieved by most of our Fat Mates was much greater than the placebo effect seen in other weight loss clinical trials that we decided to launch the product so that anybody who is overweight can try Satisfax® for themselves.

Dr Glenn Vile

I think the first part of what I’ve quoted above describes exactly what Tuatara Natural Products should be doing. They’ve conducted their low quality trial, and intend to use its results to proceed with a larger, longer, and more rigorous clinical trial. This is the right way to proceed – they now have an indication that their product might be effective, so they should do the research to find out.

The problem is that that’s not all they’re doing. After performing only a small low-quality trial, they’ve released their product for sale online and have been making a lot of noise about it. In my opinion, they’ve been significantly overstepping the results of their clinical trial. For example, in his comment Dr Vile also said:

our initial trial has shown [Satisfax] to be extremely effective in some overweight people.

Dr Glenn Vile

In their media release on the 20th of February, they reported the average weight lost only by the 52 participants who took the full dose to completion (rounded up from 2.9 kg to “close to 3kg”) but not the average weight lost by all participants. They then reported in bold that the top 26 participants lost more weight, and the top two participants lost even more weight than that!

This cherry picking of the best results appears to have been part of Tuatara Natural Products’ marketing strategy for at least a few months now. In January, Stuff published an article on the trial highlighting the single person who lost the most while participating in it: Blenheim ‘fat mate’ loses 13.5kg in 8 weeks.

That article particularly highlights the person who lost the most weight out of all those in the trial, at 13.5 kg (confusingly, the maximum weight loss reported in the analysis of the trial’s results is 13.3 kg). However, she was one of only 2 participants who lost over 10 kg, and on average the 52 participants who took the recommended dose for the full eight weeks lost 2.9 kg. Losing 13.5 kg is very far from a representative example. I’m not surprised that they didn’t choose instead to focus on the participant who gained 1.2 kg despite taking the recommended dose for the whole duration, but that is actually much closer to the mean change in weight.

The article is, for all intents and purposes, one big testimonial in favour of Satisfax. It was an article, not an advertisement, which is important because in New Zealand it’s illegal to publish any medical advertisement that:

directly or by implication claims, indicates, or suggests that a medicine of the description, or a medical device of the kind, or the method of treatment, advertised… has beneficially affected the health of a particular person or class of persons, whether named or unnamed, and whether real or fictitious, referred to in the advertisement

Medicines Act 1981 Section 58(1)(c)(iii)

This effectively bans all health testimonials from advertisements. I think this is a good part of the law, as testimonials can be both very convincing and completely misleading; a quack’s dream. Banning them should force businesses to instead focus on the results of research on their products, but this hasn’t stopped Tuatara Natural Products from getting stories written about the most extreme testimonials they could find from people who have lost weight at the same time as they were taking Satisfax.

More recently, Tuatara Natural Products has put out a press release multiple times (at least on the 20th of February and again on the 4th of March) that I think rather oversteps the results of their small preliminary trial:

A NEW ZEALAND SOLUTION TO A GLOBAL PROBLEM A little pill is providing an exciting answer to one of the worlds greatest and fastest growing problems: Obesity.A NEW ZEALAND SOLUTION TO A GLOBAL PROBLEM

A little pill is providing an exciting answer to one of the world’s greatest and fastest growing problems: Obesity.

Press Release – Tuatara Natural Products

I simply don’t think they are at all justified in saying that their new product is “providing an exciting answer to… Obesity”. They are putting marketing ahead of science, and that’s not okay.


Another company that seems to put marketing before research is 1Above. They make a drink which they claim can help you recover faster from jet lag, and have recently been in the news for signing a sponsorship deal with the fantastically successful golfer Lydia Ko.

At the end of that article about their sponsorship deal the reporter, Richard Meadows, made some comments regarding the science behind jet lag relief products and asked some good questions of 1Above’s CEO, Stephen Smith (emphasis mine):

[1Above’s] product contains a mixture of vitamins B and C, electrolytes, and Pycnogenol, a pine bark extract.

The efficacy of flight drinks to combat the effects of jetlag is unproven.

Late last year pharmacists were warned after the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against an ad saying a homeopathic anti-jet lag pill really worked.

[1Above CEO Stephen] Smith said 1Above would not be doing clinical trials, which were highly expensive and not necessary.

“What we tend to use is testimonials from people who have used the product and swear by it.”

Smith said the key ingredient, Pycnogenol, had itself had been tested in dozens of trials, including its effects on reducing jetlag.

Kiwi startup 1Above signs golf No 1 Lydia Ko

Yes, you read that correctly. The CEO of 1Above literally said that they won’t be doing clinical trials because they are “not necessary” and that they use testimonials instead.

As I said before, using testimonials to promote a therapeutic product, like a drink to help you recover faster from jet lag, can be both very convincing and completely misleading. There’s a reason why testimonials implying health benefits are illegal in New Zealand, and I hope that 1Above’s marketing will not violate this regulation.

Not all testimonials are prohibited, of course. It’s entirely acceptably to provide a testimonial from someone who thinks their drink tastes great, or that they provide great service. Basically anything for which a single person’s experience can provide a useful insight. Therapeutic effects, almost without exception, do not fall into this category, which is a big part of why we need to do clinical trials in the first place. If they quote someone in saying that their product helped them recover faster from jet lag, they may be in danger of breaching the Medicines Act.

For example, I’d expect they probably shouldn’t use a testimonial that says this:

Testimonial on the 1Above website, collected 2015/03/05
Testimonial on the 1Above website, collected 2015/03/05

On their website, 1Above currently does refer to research on one of the ingredients in their product, “pycnogenol”. Professor Lumley recently wrote a post about this on his other blog, Biased and Inefficient, regarding these studies and how they are used by 1Above: Clinically Proven Ingredients

I recently contacted 1Above to ask about some discrepancies I found between the abstract of the study they cited for showing pycnogenol reduced the duration of jet lag and their description of it on their website:

I was interested to see the claim your company made that Pycnogenol® has been shown to support circulation and reduce the length and severity of jet lag.

I have found the study “Jet-lag: prevention with Pycnogenol. Preliminary report: evaluation in healthy individuals and in hypertensive patients” that is mentioned on your website as the source for this claim, but I am only able to access the abstract of this preliminary report. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the study protocol didn’t involve blinding of participants or researchers.

The participants in the study took 50 mg Pycnogenol 3 times per day, but I haven’t been able to find out how much is contained in your products. Is this information available anywhere on your website? I notice the study also says the participants took this regimen for 7 days, starting 2 days prior to departure. Is this comparable with how your product is intended to be used?

I also noticed some differences between the description of the study and its results between the abstract and your website, I would be grateful if you could explain to me the source of these differences.

The abstract states the control group took, on average, 39.3 hours to recover and the experimental group took, on average, 18.2 hours to recover. However your website reports these as 40 and 17 hours respectively.

Also, your website states that the study involved 133 passengers (it’s not clear from the description on your website if they all took Pycnogenol or if some of them were in the control group) who reported the time it took them to recover from jetlag. However, the study’s abstract states that in the first experiment, which is the only one that involved the reporting of the time taken to recover from jetlag, only involved 68 participants – 30 in the control group and 38 in the experimental group.

I would be grateful if you could explain these differences to me, and if you could send me any other relevant scientific information that supports this claim.

To their credit, since receiving my message they did update their website to fix the discrepancies in the reported number of participants and times taken to recover from jet lag, and their CEO replied to thank me for pointing these discrepancies out.

However, they didn’t respond to my other questions about the amount of pycnogenol in their products or the study involving the participants taking pycnogenol for 7 consecutive days, starting 2 days before their flight, which is inconsistent with how 1Above recommends their products be used.

This is just one more company basing their marketing on preliminary trials instead of using them as the basis for research that could actually answer the question of whether or not a product is useful. Worse than Tuatara Natural Products, they even go so far as to consider clinical trials “not necessary” and apparently intend to rely on testimonials instead. It would be much more appropriate for them to spend some of their $2.4 million annualised income on researching their product rather than paying for a sporting celebrity to endorse them.


I try to make my rants constructive, so I want to end this article with the question “What can we do about this?”. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them in the comments section.

I think the most important thing that anyone can do to address this problem is to ask for evidence. If you see a claim made about a product that you think you might buy, then get in touch with the company selling it to let them know you’re considering buying it and to ask for evidence. If they don’t have a good enough answer, then let them know that’s why you won’t be buying their product. If they give you evidence to back up their claim, then great!

The UK organisation Sense about Science has created a website for just this purpose: www.askforevidence.org

Asking for evidence doesn’t have to be a big deal, involving a formal letter or anything like that. When you see a weight loss product advertised on a one day deal site, a copper bracelet that apparently offers pain relief advertised on a store counter, or a jet lag cure promoted on Twitter, make your first response be to politely ask for evidence.

This isn’t a problem that’s going away any time soon. As consumers, we deserve to be able to make informed decisions about the products we buy, and when companies put marketing before research it becomes harder to make these informed choices. But if we work together then we can encourage companies like Tuatara Natural Products and 1Above to improve their behaviour and attitudes toward marketing and research.

Let’s turn “what’s the evidence?” into a frequently asked question for all companies that sell therapeutic products.

ACC and Acupuncture 3

I’ve written a couple of times in the past about ACC and Acupuncture:

To summarise, in 2014 a couple of Official Information Act (OIA) requests to ACC uncovered information about how much they had spent on acupuncture treatments over the past decade, as well as a more detailed breakdown of how much was spent on acupuncture used for different categories of injury (the detailed breakdown also included data for 2013/2014).

Information released in parliament in 2004 also revealed how much money ACC spent on acupuncture in the decade from 1994-2004, as well as projections on how much they expected to spend on acupuncture from 2004-2009.

As you can see from the chart below, their projections turned out to be rather inaccurate, and ACC spending on acupuncture has been absolutely booming:

ACC Acupuncture 1994-2014

In August, I submitted my own OIA request asking for:

copies of or links to all literature reviews regarding the effectiveness of acupuncture for any condition undertaken by ACC

I was told that:

There are only two ACC literature reviews on the efficacy of acupuncture.

It was with this information that I wrote my previous two posts on this topic. Here are the important parts of those reviews’ conclusions:

The evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture is most convincing for the treatment of chronic neck and shoulder pain. In terms of other injuries, the evidence is either inconclusive or insufficient.

There is limited good quality evidence to conclusively determine acupuncture’s efficacy in treatment of mental health conditions such as Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymia, Anxiety Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


When I went to write on this topic again last year during “Acupuncture Awareness Week”, I found two more ACC literature reviews on the efficacy of acupuncture (as well as other treatments) on the ACC website:

On the topic of acupuncture, these reviews concluded that:

The evidence is either weak or absent for:

acupuncture

current evidence does not support the use of acupuncture to treat people with [Traumatic Brain Injury].

Feeling rather frustrated that ACC’s response to my earlier request (which arrived less than 2 weeks before last year’s September election) was apparently false, I sent a more specific followup:

I would like to reiterate my request to be provided with copies of or links to all literature reviews regarding the effectiveness of acupuncture for any condition undertaken by ACC. For the sake of clarity, I would like to be explicit that this includes both reviews that looked at several treatment options including acupuncture, and reviews that were commissioned by ACC as well as those directly undertaken by ACC.

I hope anyone reading this would agree that this followup should absolutely not have been necessary, and all the information I was requesting here should have been provided in ACC’s response to my original request before they’d be breaking the law.

However, when ACC finally acknowledged my request over a week after having received it, they maintained that “the information provided to [me] on 3 September 2014 was complete” and that this was therefore a new, separate OIA request. Because of the break over summer, this gave them until the 20th of January to respond to my request.

At 4 o’clock in the afternoon on the 20th of January, I heard back from ACC with an answer that essentially felt like “find the information yourself, it’s online”. Instead of providing me with copies of or links to any reviews, they told me the name of one review commissioned by ACC and that it could be found online, and provided me with 2 links to pages on their website that listed all of their reviews.

Interestingly, although I don’t believe the 2011 review has been released except in response to an OIA request, it was not mentioned in ACC’s response and they told me that:

ACC does not hold any other information that has not been published.

Having taken some time to go through all the reviews found on the pages I was linked to in order to find all those which mention acupuncture, I came up with the following list. As well as a link to the review and its title and date where I could find one, I am quoting the relevant conclusions below.

Although they have told me so incorrectly in the past, I have ACC’s word that these are all the ACC literature reviews that evaluate acupuncture. As you can see, they are inconclusive or negative for all but a few specific conditions: Frozen shoulder, chronic neck pain, chronic shoulder pain.

In 2014 ACC spent $30,000 on acupuncture to treat burns, $59,000 on acupuncture for concussion and brain injury, and $591,000 on acupuncture for fracture and dislocation. They apparently spent $22,592,000 on acupuncture for soft tissue injuries, but I find it highly unlikely that all of this money was used to treat frozen shoulder, chronic neck pain, and chronic shoulder pain.

ACC’s expenditure on acupuncture shows no sign of slowing. It grew 17% from 2011/12 to 2012/13, then a further 17% from 2012/13 to 2013/14, leaving the expenditure for 2013/14 at over $24,000,000. It’s certainly not a large part of ACC’s total expenditure, but it’s no small sum of money.

ACC is publicly funded. Publicly funded healthcare should be based on rigorous evidence. ACC does not appear to have evidence that would allow them to conclude that acupuncture is an effective treatment for any more than these conditions. It is well past time for ACC to re-evaluate their expenditure on acupuncture. It should only be funded when used to treat conditions in a way that is supported by rigorous evidence, and that is certainly not the case currently.

I will end this post the same way as I have ended my previous posts on this topic, with my recommendations for how ACC should deal with this issue:


I think ACC needs to review its funding scheme for acupuncture. I think their approach to this should start with reviewing their Acupuncture Treatment Profiles document, ensuring that the only treatments contained within it are those supported by rigorous evidence, and purging pseudoscientific claims from it. If they find they need to undertake further reviews of the evidence for the use of acupuncture for particular indications, then they should do that before approving funding for it.

I think ACC should then only agree to pay for acupuncture treatments that are aligned with their Treatment Profiles document, which they should commit to reviewing at regular intervals to keep it in line with the latest evidence (I’m not sure what time interval would be most appropriate, and I understand that there is a cost involved in that work).

I’m not sure, but it’s possible some changes to legislation may be required before this becomes a reality, but if that’s the case those changes should happen. A government body should not be bound by law to fund healthcare that is not supported by evidence.

There’s one last thing I’d also like to see, although I really feel like this is a long shot. I think ACC should take an active role in discouraging healthcare practice based on the “pre-scientific notions” described in their 2011 review. I think they should do this by distancing themselves from those acupuncturists who promote it and who base their practice on it, by refusing to grant them status as registered ACC practitioners if they are found to rely on it.

New Zealand Skeptics Conference: Fighting Pseudoscience

Over the weekend, I attended the New Zealand Skeptics Conference at Auckland University. It was a great weekend, with consistently good speakers. Not only did we have the hosts of the popular Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast and George Hrab from the Geologic podcast over from America, we also had a lot of fantastic local speakers like Nicola Gaston and Michelle Dickinson (Nanogirl).

If you weren’t able to attend and want to know what you missed, the conference program is currently still available online. I think the website will be reused for next year’s conference in Christchurch though so that won’t last forever.

As well attending some really great talks, I was also able to meet a lot of people who I’d previously only spoken to online. Nicola, Michelle, Jonny, Will, and everyone else I met over the weekend, it was wonderful to meet you all! I was also rather honoured to be given the “Skeptic of the Year” award at the conference dinner, for my consumer advocacy work and for helping to found the Society for Science Based Healthcare.

If you have a close look at the conference program, you might notice that I was scheduled to hold a workshop on “Fighting Pseudoscience” on the Saturday afternoon. As I have done with my previous talk at Auckland Skeptics in the Pub, I’d like to put my slides from this up online. Here they are:

If you view them on Google Drive (click the “Google Slides” link in the lower right) you’ll also be able to see my notes for each slide.

I think the workshop went really well, there was a lot of good discussion with the audience and I hope I was able to motivate some of them enough to make complaints of their own. Unfortunately I was only able to get through a single example in the time I had instead of the four I had prepared, but that was due to the time spent in discussion with the audience so it wasn’t really a problem.

Siouxsie was kind enough to get a few copies of the Ponsonby News (which it’s always fun to hear her rant about on the Completely Unnecessary Skeptical Podcast) to pass around the audience, and a few people found advertisements in the health section that seemed likely to be misleading.

There were also a couple of copies of the Advertising Standards Authority’s Codes Booklet that I was able to pass around the audience (thanks to Lisa Taylor for letting me borrow her code booklet for this). A few people asked me afterwards how they could get one of these booklets. One option would be to email the ASA to ask for one or to tick the box asking if you’d like one when you submit a complaint online. Another option is to print the PDF yourself. The ASA’s codes are all available on their website too, so don’t feel like you have to print the PDF if you’re happy to use an online reference.

Finally, everyone who attended my talk got a copy of a “Complaining Cheat Sheet” that I’d put together for the Society for Science Based Healthcare (thanks to Nancy Lan for helping me a lot with the design). The idea behind this was that it can feel like quite a task to go through the ASA’s codes to find out which sections of which codes an ad might violate, especially if you’re not already familiar with them. This cheat sheet can serve as a quick reference to some of the most commonly violated sections of the ASA’s codes, as well as a guide to how to prepare and submit a complaint.

I’ve embedded the complaining cheat sheet below, and it’s available via the Society for Science Based Healthcare’s website: Complaining Cheat Sheet

Please download it, print it, share it widely, and most importantly use it. It was made to make it easier for anyone to complain about misleading advertising in New Zealand, so the next time you see an ad that you think is misleading, instead of just being annoyed try complaining. Together we can make New Zealand a safer environment for consumers.

Copper & Magnetic Healing: How to Respond to Complaints

Last Saturday, I was in a store that had a display on their counter advertising copper and magnetic jewellery:

Copper & Magnetic Healing

As you may be aware, claims that copper jewellery are able to help with arthritis are relatively common, although the evidence is pretty negative. The claim about magnets attracting iron in your blood and thereby increasing circulation is pure pseudoscience though. Usually, if I do something about an ad like this, I lay a complaint directly with the Advertising Standards Authority. This time though, I thought I’d try directly contacting the store to see if they’d fix this situation without requiring any regulatory intervention.

You can read the full email I sent to the company at the bottom of this post, but essentially I described the regulations around claims in advertising needing to be substantiated, and gave some evidence that these claims probably weren’t substantiated. Here’s what I recommended as a course of action:

I understand that these claims were likely supplied to [your store] by the supplier of the copper and magnetic jewellery, and that no one at [your store] has had any intention of misleading your customers. I recommend that you immediately remove the “Copper & Magnetic Healing” display, and contact the manufacturer to ask them for evidence to substantiate these claims. Unless you are in possession of such evidence, you should avoid making therapeutic claims regarding these products.

I’ve had a wide variety of responses from my ASA complaints in the past, so I wasn’t sure how I should expect this business to respond. To make sure my email wouldn’t just be ignored, I asked them to get back to me within a week to let me know what they’d do, so I could know whether or not I should complain to the ASA.

In this case, I was very impressed to hear back from them the next day to tell me that the stores had been advised to remove the displays and they would contact their supplier to ask for evidence to substantiate the claims they’d provided. They also seemed to realise that the chance of the supplier being able to give the kind of evidence required was pretty slim.

A couple of days after that, I heard back from them again to confirm that, as expected, their supplier was unable to provide evidence that would substantiate the claims made about the jewellery. Because of this, they told me that from now on they would only advertise them as jewellery – not “healing jewellery” or anything like that.

I’m very happy to have seen such prompt and responsible action taking following a complaint. I hope this can serve as an example to other businesses.


If you see a therapeutic claim advertised somewhere, and you think it might not be backed up appropriately by scientific evidence, perhaps consider doing something about it. A good start could be to just ask for evidence. If you’d like them to remove a claim if it turns out not to be backed up by evidence, you can recommend that they do this (and your recommendation will be backed up by the Fair Trading Act).

If they refuse, which I would hope is unlikely, then you could lay a complaint with the ASA. The ASA requires that advertisers must be able to substantiate therapeutic claims that they make; it’s not up to you to prove them false, it’s up to advertisers to prove them correct.

If you do contact a business about a claim they’re making, I would suggest a few things:

  1. Be polite. This costs you nothing, and if you come across as rude or antagonistic it’s not going to lead to a productive exchange.
  2. Recommend a course of action. Ideally make it something that is easy for the business to do.
  3. Give an ultimatum. This should still be polite, but I would recommend asking the business to tell you what they’re going to do within a certain timeframe (such as one week) so you’ll know whether or not it’s necessary to bring their claim to the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority.

If you’re interested in doing something about a dodgy medical claim, the Society for Science Based Healthcare can help you to understand the regulation and put together a complaint.


This is the email I sent to the store on Sunday, with the name of the store removed:

To whom it may concern,

I was in [your store] earlier today, and I noticed a display for copper and magnetic bangles and rings on the counter (see photograph attached).

This display contained a number of therapeutic claims about the products. As I hope you are aware, the Advertising Standards Authority requires that all therapeutic claims made in advertisements must be truthful and have been substantiated (see their Therapeutic Products Advertising Code Principle 2). Similarly, the Fair Trading Act 1986 Section 12A states that unsubstantiated representations must not be made in trade.

To my knowledge, none of the therapeutic claims made on the display are substantiated.

A systematic review of the evidence regarding the use of static magnets for reducing pain, published in 2007, found that “The evidence does not support the use of static magnets for pain relief, and therefore magnets cannot be recommended as an effective treatment.”

Relatively little research has been done on the use of copper bracelets for pain relief, but a well-designed trial published in 2009 found that “Our results indicate that magnetic and copper bracelets are generally ineffective for managing pain, stiffness, and physical function in osteoarthritis. Reported therapeutic benefits are most likely attributable to non-specific placebo effects.”

The Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint in 2013 against claims made on the Woolrest Biomag website, partly due to the fact that their claims that the magnets in their products can increase circulation by “drawing trace elements, for instance, iron, towards the magnets” and by causing “blood vessels to dilate” did not appear to be supported by any evidence and were therefore likely to mislead consumers.

I understand that these claims were likely supplied to [your store] by the supplier of the copper and magnetic jewellery, and that no one at [your store] has had any intention of misleading your customers. I recommend that you immediately remove the “Copper & Magnetic Healing” display, and contact the manufacturer to ask them for evidence to substantiate these claims. Unless you are in possession of such evidence, you should avoid making therapeutic claims regarding these products.

Please reply to this email by the 23rd of November to inform me of what action you will be taking, so I will know whether or not it will be necessary for me to lay a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority to settle this matter.

Sincerely,

Mark Hanna
Society for Science Based Healthcare