Health frauds, miracle cures and scam websites

After reading Andy’s recent blog post about his experiences with “Dr Zhang’s miracle cure” our Science Information Officer thought it would be a good idea to share some thoughts on health frauds, miracle cures and scam websites and what you can do if you come across any. It’s important to remember if it’s too good to be true, it probably is – and always consult your healthcare team or our Careline if you are even tempted by anything that may affect your health.

There are lots of good sources of health information on the web. On our own website we make sure that the information we put there can be backed up with good quality evidence so that our site is a trustworthy resource for people with diabetes and healthcare professionals. Other good sites include NHS Choices and healthtalkonline.

But there are plenty of websites offering questionable information. Some sites are even selling products such as herbal ‘miracle cures’ or weight loss pills or patches, aimed at people with diabetes or those at risk of Type 2 diabetes, with claims that they may not be able to back up. If you see such a site, what can you do? Complain to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The ASA now acts on misleading claims on websites
Before 1 March 2011 the ASA focused only on adverts appearing on television, radio, in newspapers or magazines (eg inserts) or leaflets in shops. This led to the situation where a company might be told not to use certain claims in their leaflets, but there was nothing stopping them from using those same claims on their website. Since 1 March, however, the ASA has been handling complaints about claims made on websites, making sure that all advertising material, wherever it’s placed, is ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’.

How to complain
All it takes to get misleading advertising investigated and removed is a single complaint, and it’s very easy to do. You can fill in the ASA’s online form , though you might also want to read how to complain, and about advertising regulation first. Your contact details are not passed on to the organisation you’re complaining about.

When putting together your complaint, you’ll need to make a note of the address of the website (the URL), and each individual claim made on it that you want to complain about. Rather than being too general and complaining about entire paragraphs, be quite specific and pick out short phrases that contain a claim which you suspect can’t be proved. One page may have more than ten such claims (some have many more) but you don’t have to pick all of them. You don’t even need to provide evidence showing why the claim is wrong (though you can if you want) as it’s up to the company to supply the ASA with evidence for any claims made. You can simply say “I don’t believe Company X has the evidence to back up this claim” and leave it at that.

Here’s a nice example of a step-by-step complaint made about an advert in a newspaper. (Note that the article was written before the ASA began to accept complaints made about websites.)

What happens next?
If the advertising material is found to be in breach of the ASA’s advertising code, then the advertiser will be asked to remove those claims. For some investigations an adjudication is published on the ASA’s website giving details of the misleading claims and the company’s response. Often though the case will be resolved informally and fewer details are published (though you’ll be kept informed of the outcome). You can view or search the last five years’ worth of adjudications. (Make sure you scroll down the page to the box marked ‘Search adjudications’. The search box at the top of the page just searches the main site.)

Some examples of diabetes-related adjudications include a complaint upheld against Vitabiotics about their ‘Diabetone’ product and a complaint upheld against Blakefield LLP for a book claiming to reverse diabetes.

Complaining to Trading Standards
Sometimes websites go beyond making misleading claims and break the law. The Medicines (Advertising) Regulations of 1994 has a list of “diseases in respect of which advertisements to the public are prohibited” (meaning it’s illegal to promote a treatment directly to the public). Diabetes is included, in the section on endocrine diseases. Pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to advertise their products (insulins, tablets etc) directly to members of the public and the same rule applies to any website which is making similar claims.

If you come across a site which you believe is breaking the law, then you can report it to Trading Standards. Use the online form at Consumer Direct’s website and your complaint will then be transferred to your local Trading Standards office for investigation. Generally the results of Trading Standards complaints are not published on their website, although they may contact you (usually by telephone) and let you know what is happening.

Further information
• See the section on Health scams at DirectGov’s scams advice page which includes an example of a fake slimming leaflet and website.
• Diabetes UK worked with the charity Sense About Science and the Office of Fair Trading to highlight weight loss scams and miracle diabetes cures with two websites created for fake products: Glucobate and Fatfoe.

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