New study finds trading standards close to breaking point trying to regulate misleading marketing claims on healthcare products
Ineffective and dangerous health products are being advertised to the public for serious medical conditions in breach of consumer protection regulations, while cash-strapped trading standards departments struggle to keep traders in line. A new study has confirmed that laws intended to protect vulnerable consumers against misleading health-related marketing claims are simply not being enforced.
The UK charity HealthWatch, which promotes integrity in healthcare, has just completed a two-year investigation to learn what really happens when consumers blow the whistle on false claims about healthcare products. They found:
- Pursuing a complaint is cumbersome and lengthy
- Most complaints do not result in enforcement
- Approaches to enforcement vary widely between trading standards offices
HealthWatch’s volunteer investigators submitted 38 complaints to trading standards via the Citizen’s Advice website about traders making misleading claims for their products online. Some were simply ineffective, such as copper bracelets for restless legs syndrome, and red jasper crystals to heal and prevent colds and flu. Others were potentially harmful – one ad was offering homeopathic remedies for deadly whooping cough or poisoning. It took up to 74 working days to get a reply – more usually around a month. Despite the volunteers pursuing their complaints for up for six months, enforcement action was ultimately only taken against two traders. In fact, the volunteers found the process so cumbersome and time-consuming that many of them withdrew from the study.
Annual funding for local trading standards services dropped from £213m in 2011 to £124m today, and the number of full-time officers has fallen by 56% over the last seven years, according to a recent report by the National Audit Office.
The HealthWatch investigation found that responses from trading standards were highly variable and this even extended to disagreeing as to whether an offence had been committed. Trading standards is the legal backstop to the Advertising Standards Authority but, despite their statutory powers, seems not to be in a position to provide an effective regulatory function.
The complaints were made under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. All product claims complained about were clearly misleading, and had been widely marketed nationally.
The full report is available on the charity's website at https://www.healthwatch-uk.org/cpr2. The HealthWatch study is the subject of a major feature in Trading Standards Review.
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Notes to editors
- HealthWatch is the charity that has been promoting science and integrity in healthcare since 1991
- Further information from www.healthwatch-uk.org
- HealthWatch has no connection with “Healthwatch England”
- Rose L et al. Testing the effectiveness of consumer legislation for health-related claims. April 2017. https://www.healthwatch-uk.org/cpr2
- National Audit Office. Protecting consumers from scams, unfair trading and unsafe goods. December 2016. ISBN: 9781786040923. https://www.nao.org.uk/report/protecting-consumers-from-scams-unfair-trading-and-unsafe-goods/
- Advertising Standards Authority. Trading Standards https://www.asa.org.uk/resource/trading-standards.html
- Bailey C. Mind the cracks. Trading Standards Review. April 2017. pp18-23.