Read the latest HealthWatch newsletter:  Issue 112, Spring 2020

Background and Rationale

Many websites make health-related claims without providing robust evidence. As well as breaching advertising standards, these traders also violate consumer legislation. A previous pilot study1 found that enforcement of consumer legislation with regard to misleading health claims was largely ineffectual. This study was designed to focus on the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, and to assess a wider range of marketing claims.

Study Design and Conduct

Ten websites were selected, that were making health-related claims which lacked supporting evidence. These included homeopathy, crystal healing, electronic diagnostic devices, copper bracelets, colonic ydrotherapy, static magnets, far infra red therapy, and massage cups.

Thirteen volunteers were each allocated up to five health claims to challenge (of the 10 selected). Hence each trader received several challenges, ranging from five to 12. Volunteers asked traders to provide evidence for their claims. None did, but three removed their claims from their websites. Volunteers then sent the remaining traders a `cease and desist’ letter, warning them that failing to comply would trigger a complaint to the authorities. One further trader removed claims at this stage.

Main Outcomes

A total of 38 complaints were submitted to Trading Standards (TS), via the Citizens Advice website. We identified 13 local TS offices to whom Citizens Advice forwarded complaints. Only 18 complaints (64%, of known data) drew a response from TS offices. Of these, response times ranged from 10 to 74 working days (median 31).

Complaints were followed up by volunteers for six months. Two traders received advice from TS, and removed their claims. Two traders were referred to the MHRA (who took no action). In total, only four enforcement actions by TS could be identified, although two complaints were unresolved after six months.

There was wide variation between TS regions as to their responses. For example Merton TS did not consider that the copper bracelets trader was in breach of consumer law, while Wiltshire TS did – but still refused to take action.

Conclusions

Our volunteers found that making and tracking complaints to TS was extremely cumbersome. Thus 74 requests were made to traders for evidence, but only 38 complaints were made to TS. The study suffered from a large volume of missing data for this reason, but the lack of TS action can be verified by most websites subject to complaints, continuing to make unwarranted claims. In several cases TS offices referred complaints to another region, from whom nothing was heard. 

Read the full report: Testing the Effectiveness of Consumer Legislation for Health-Related Claims

 

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