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Saturday, 13 August 2011

Why does the Faculty of Homeopaths think the ASA is asking to see more evidence?

EDIT: 19 December 2011 - just tidying up draft blog posts and found this. Not sure why I didn't post it at the time, possibly I'll remember what the good reason was and delete it at some future date :-)

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I was surprised to read a quote from Cristal Sumner, Chief Executive of the Faculty of Homeopaths, in Research Fortnight Today's article "Advertising authority clampdown on homeopathy" on Thursday 11 August 2011 in which she said
“All members have been asked to back claims with evidence,” she noted. “This evidence includes a healthy number of randomised controlled trials and outcome studies.”
I didn't think that the Advertisting Standards Authority (ASA) has asked for any evidence at all - have they? I've been trying to find out what Cristal Sumner's quote was referring to. Also, I'm not sure that a few randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are going to help at this stage - the House of Commons Evidence Check on Homeopathy was certainly keen on RCTs (see paras 19 and 20) but they also acknowledged the variability in quality and highlighted in paras 21 to 25 that emphasis would be given to systematic reviews and meta-analyses of RCTs (ideally good quality ones).

In a leaked email from (jointly) the Society of Homeopaths, Faculty of Homeopathy and British Homeopathic Association to their respective members they said that, in face to face discussions which took place on Thursday 23 June 2011, the ASA had agreed it might consider proposals to look at evidence submitted, but that's a little different from asking for evidence.
"Agreement by the ASA to consider our proposal for a proper evaluation of the evidence in homeopathy, which we will send to them by 1 July."
The ASA has sent three letters to homeopaths and homeopathy marketers whose websites were flagged up soon after 1 March 2011 (when the ASA began to look at websites). They also, in the second week of March, sent a letter to complainants (many of whom will have been skeptics sending in complaints as part of the Nightingale Collaboration's campaign), to let us know what they were up to - basically giving homeopaths a further three months' grace to get their websites in order.

The first letter specifically states that the ASA isn't asking for evidence... this appears to have been added to their website on 1 July 2011.
"Why are we not asking for substantiation?Those advertisers who are familiar with the ASA may want to know why, in this case, we are not inviting them to submit evidence to substantiate the claims complained about. This is because, to date, the ASA has not seen robust scientific evidence to support claims that imply homeopathy is proven for treating any specific health condition."
...simply because they've already seen the evidence submitted to the Evidence Check...
"We have seen the most recent, authoritative and comprehensive review of the scientific evidence by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee entitled “Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy”. This provided an analysis of evidence and opinion submitted by a range of proponents and opponents of homeopathy, including some of the organisations representing homeopathy in the UK and practising homeopaths. The conclusion made clear that there was a lack of objective scientific evidence to substantiate the efficacy of homeopathy."
...and that the issue of evidence was done and dusted then, and homeopaths had the opportunity to submit evidence.
"Because the documents submitted for the “Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy” report provided a comprehensive collection of data for assessment, and homeopaths and the various bodies that represent them were invited to submit evidence as part of a consultation process, we do not intend to duplicate that process or assess the evidence again."
The second letter also seems to be clear that the ASA is not writing to homeopaths to ask them for evidence or substantiation...
"Our previous correspondence makes clear why we are not asking for substantiation at this stage."
The third letter also doesn't ask for evidence although by highlighting what will happen next if homeopaths don't comply, which is the possibility of a formal adjudication, I suppose you could draw the conclusion that some sort of evidence might be 'requested' (see bit below, emphasis mine).
"If we don’t receive your assurance to change your ad, we may have to investigate the complaint formally. That would give you the opportunity to defend your ad but would ultimately lead to the ASA Council adjudicating on the complaint."
So it seems that they're not asking for any further evidence.

However back in April both the Faculty of Homeopathy and the Society of Homeopaths published statements on their website in April expressing delight that the ASA was open to hearing new evidence from them but I've not been able to find this offer on the ASA's site though.

*As an aside, the resulting report from the House of Commons didn't think too much of the cherry picked evidence supplied by the homeopaths...
"73. We regret that advocates of homeopathy, including in their submissions to our inquiry, choose to rely on, and promulgate, selective approaches to the treatment of the evidence base as this risks confusing or misleading the public, the media and policy-makers." (see section 2, NHS funding and provision, in the link given above)
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