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Read the latest HealthWatch newsletter:  Issue 107, Spring 2018

Leslie B Rose (1), Paul Posadzki (2) and Edzard Ernst (2).

1. Pharmavision Consulting Ltd, 11 Montague Road, West Harnham, Salisbury SP2 8NJ
2. Complementary Medicine, Peninsula Medical School, Veysey Building, Salmon Pool Lane, Exeter, EX2 4SG, UK Medico-Legal Journal 80:1 13-18 2012

Abstract

The lay media, and especially the Internet, contain many misleading claims for health products which have previously been inadequately regulated by consumer law. This was an experimental interventional survey within a consumer health-care setting. Three health products were chosen on the basis of being widely available on the UK market and having no available evidence of effectiveness. Twelve volunteers submitted 39 complaints to Consumer Direct (UK portal for the regulator Trading Standards) regarding false health claims, and 36 complaints were followed up for a maximum of 4.8 months. The mean time from submission of complaints to Consumer Direct to acknowledgement by the relevant Trading Standards office was 13 days. There were no responses from Trading Standards for 22% of complaints. At the end of the study one supplier had amended their website following Trading Standards advice, but did not stop all health claims. Another stopped advertising their product on the Internet and the third continued the health claims unchanged. EU directive 2005/29/EC is largely ineffective in preventing misleading health claims for consumer products in the UK.

© Medico-Legal Society

The full text of this paper is available at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1258/mlj.2011.011034

Summary of the findings of this research

Health professionals and consumer organisations had hoped that the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs) (the UK implementation of EU Directive 2005/29/EC, the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive) would offer protection by requiring that traders “Falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses, dysfunction or malformations” must back up their claims with evidence.

The reality, when tested in this study was disappointing. Not one prosecution arose from the complaints over claims that red seaweed reduced the risk of breast cancer; that shark cartilage boosted the immune system and that a five day Detox Plan “helped to flush away toxins” and “stimulated the body’s natural detoxifying systems”.

In this study, the first of its kind, three widely available products with no credible evidence of effectiveness were selected (see below). Twelve volunteers submitted 39 complaints to Consumer Direct (the UK portal for the regulator Trading Standards) regarding false health claims, and 36 complaints were followed up for a maximum of 4.8 months.

The following products were the subject of the study:

Boots Detox 5-day Plan (available online and in retail outlets). The claim made was “ [They] help flush away toxins and stimulate your body’s natural detoxifying systems leaving you purified (sic) and revitilised (sic)”

World Wide Shopping Mall’s Health Aid Shark Cartilage (available online). The claim made was to “Boost the immune system. Reduce inflammation. Act as a pain reliever. Help with the symptoms of inflamed joints and cartilage. Protect the body against harmful diseases”

Bohemia Style’s Easy Diet Red Seaweed Dietary Supplement (available online). The claim made was “Red Seaweed helps reduce your risk of breast cancer. Helps lower hypertension. Prevents hypothyroidism”

It took an average of 13 days from submission of complaint to Consumer Direct to acknowledgement by the relevant Trading Standards office – and 22% of complaints had no response from Trading Standards at all. By the end of the study only one trader had stopped advertising their product on the Internet. Another, Boots, had amended their website – although this may have been for reasons unrelated to the study – but did not stop all health claims. Another downgraded their health claims, but continued their core claim. Trading Standards failed to respond to any complaints with clear action to correct claims.

Not one prosecution was brought under CPRs for false health claims as a result of the complaints.

“By failing to prosecute traders for making false health claims, Trading Standards officers misinterpret the currently available law. This means that the UK government has failed to comply with the EU law under the Directive 2005/29/EC. This justifies a formal complaint to the European Commission,” says Les Rose. He continued: “It appears that the CPRs are a retrograde step, because we are aware of numerous prosecutions for false health claims under the old Trade Descriptions Act. What we really need is for far more consumers to challenge health claims and press their MPs for enforcement action”.

Of the three traders investigated in the study, Bohemia Style did not respond to any attempts at contact. World Wide Shopping Mall declined to comment on the findings of the study. Boots issued the following statement:

“As the UK’s leading pharmacy-led health and beauty retailer, Boots UK always aims to listen to its customers’ wants and needs and, as a result of this, the Boots Detox Plan was discontinued.”

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