Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2018/19 scientific society talks in London blog post

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Latest regulatory action on homeopathy, at home and abroad

by @JoBrodie,

1. United Kingdom

The text below the line is a comment that I wrote in response to Andy Lewis' Quackometer post(1) about the latest entertainment from the UK's Society of Homeopaths.

In response to the recently 'reaffirmed' guidance (perhaps read that as "you've got away with it for a bit too long and we've had enough") from the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) on homeopathy marketing the SoH have objected to a focus on homeopaths (which has largely been driven by skeptics - we've also got the ASA to look more closely at other things and they've produced guidance on live blood analysis for example).

They consider that the ASA is unfairly targeting them (though as Alan Henness, writing on the Nightingale Collaboration website(2), notes - they implicitly acknowledge that it's the same law for everyone) and they are [tee hee] considering mounting some sort of legal challenge [ha ha] against the ASA.

No-one is sure why. Even if their actions were to wipe out the ASA there's still Trading Standards (TS) to contend with and we can all report homeopaths directly to TS, who can instigate criminal proceedings. The ASA is a bit like a fuse or canary in the coalmine and if homeopaths (only the ones that make misleading health claims) work with them they can probably avoid further trouble.

I expect homeopaths will make a legal challenge to skeptics to try and stop us from reporting their misleading peers to any regulatory body ;)

It may be helpful for homeopaths to understand the following, I'm not sure if they do. The UK's regulations for marketing in the UK cover obvious things like websites and leaflets but they also cover Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts. Many homeopaths have blocked skeptics from these social media but they'd do well to understand that unless the account is private blocked people can just log out to view posts (or use third party apps, or scrape tweets directly from Twitter's API via IFTTT etc). In short, we can see your posts, so please don't post misleading stuff, thanks.

Here's my response to Andy's post.

If I understand correctly then this would seem to be pretty good news for skeptics. By having a bit of a comedy bleat these homeopaths will

1. Surely lose
2. Waste money
3. Draw yet more attention to homeopathy’s poor evidence
4. Open themselves up to public ridicule (OK less ‘will’ and more ‘already are’)

Less good news for both skeptics and homeopaths is the risk that a homeopath is going to end up with a criminal case against them via Trading Standards (for all my mocking of their behaviour I think we could all do without that, although… it would be a bit schadenfreude-y). Then there’s the awful risk of someone coming to real harm by being misdirected on health advice.

Trading Standards have already taken action on cases referred to them by the ASA (though not yet, as far as I’m aware, any to do with homeopathy) – the outcome of these can be read on their website here There’s no feasible legal objection to ASA’s involvement in this that’s available to them, as far as I can see. Trading Stds’ interventions have resulted in people amending their websites, taking their websites down and / or ceasing trading and one marketer has been prosecuted. It seems that most people, when contacted by Trading Standards, manage to find the edit button for their website.

I strongly agree with your point about the possibility of the ASA having been seen as a kind of critical friend to homeopaths and I’d naively hoped that skeptics might even have been able to do something similar too, a little further upstream.

“I’ve always thought that it would seem to be a kindness to give a company an opportunity to avoid a citation on the ASA’s website by seeing if it’s possible to resolve the misleading claims before snitching on them.” – from a blog post of mine in 2013

Sadly my utopian dream did not come true and I’m mostly reporting homeopaths to the ASA and even Trading Stds directly – I wonder if the Society of Homeopaths has any thoughts about the legal basis for skeptics complaining to the regulators! I still reply to misleading homeopathy tweets (probably unseen by the homeopath given that they’ve blocked all of us, but visible to everyone else of course).

It’s a shame they’re telling their supporters that ‘homeopathy denialists’ have been “trounced” in many countries as that’s flat out wrong, to the point that I had to add an international section to the Skeptic Successes in Homeopathy storify

I shall watch this with interest – I may have to update the even more recently-added section, on “Homeopaths’ own goals” 😉


2. United States

The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) in the US also appears to have had it up to here (makes head-height gestures) with homeopaths implying that homeopathy is something akin to medicine when it really should be in the home baking or tea-sweetening aisles. They have published new guidelines(3) requiring homeopathic products to state clearly on the labelling that there's no scientific evidence that they work.

This should prove interesting...

In the world of science communication we have understood for some time that giving people more information about science, or correcting misinformation, doesn't automatically lead to people being more favourable towards science. In fact it can just as easily backfire and make them more entrenched. People who believe in homeopathy probably aren't going to care (or even notice) that people they already don't trust are telling them products they like are rubbish. I suspect the new labelling will not be a very effective leverage point for skeptics to use in keeping homeopathy marketing honest in the US.

I wonder if the FTC has inadvertently done homeopathy manufacturers a favour though as presumably it will no longer be possible for anyone to get a refund (or for groups of people to start a class action against a manufacturer) if they find that they don't get better after taking the product. The new packaging specifically highlights, albeit obliquely, that the contents don't work as described.

3. References and further reading

(1) Quackometer blog (15 November 2016) Society of Homeopaths ‘Taking Legal Advice’ to Fight the ASA
(2) Nightingale Collaboration (22 November 2016) The different faces of the Society of Homeopaths
(3) FTC (15 November 2016) FTC Issues Enforcement Policy Statement Regarding Marketing Claims for Over-the-Counter Homeopathic Drugs: Efficacy and Safety Claims Are Held to Same Standard as Other OTC Drug Claims


  1. I'm surprised that homeopaths are targeting the ASA. The CAP Code is a voluntary code. The ASA doesn't have much in the way of sanctions in itself. However, the Society of Homeopaths (SoH) does have the sanction of expulsion. A member who doesn't abide by their Code of Ethics and Practice can be thrown out. As the SoH is now an Accredited Voluntary Register with the Professional Standards Authority (PSA), it has to comply with PSA standards to retain accreditation.

    The SoH have got themselves into a situation where they have to act on complaints about advertising. The ASA do not have to become involved. If the SoH do not deal with complaints about advertising in an appropriate manner, the PSA could revoke their accreditation.

    A legal challenge to the ASA would be difficult as it is a voluntary regulator - I suspect advice would tell the SoH that. However, in many cases, homeopaths are in breach of the law as well as the CAP Code. Etc, etc ... Challenging on competition law? The CAP Code represents a level playing field. A challenge on the basis of censorship of free speech under the Human Rights Act would be possible but unlikely to succeed and you'd need to be prepared to take it all the way through the UK Courts and then to the European Court of Justice.

    The only way to stop criticism and complaints from skeptics would be to seek a super-injunction but these have limited jurisdiction.

  2. Agree that the ASA don't really have many sanctions though prominent critical adverts on search results might focus the mind a bit - I've seen examples of these and they're pretty clear. However if you're the sort of person to ignore criticism of homeopathy anyway then...

    I've always assumed that having a previously-ignored-recommendation or sanction from the ASA won't be much help if Trading Stds later get involved and things move court-wards, but perhaps they don't take earlier infractions into account, I really don't know. It certainly seems that the PSA revoking accreditation is the next step to investigate.

    Presumably the super-injunction would stop *publication* of our complaints, but not the complaints themselves. I have got out of the habit of publishing my ASA / TS activities though I've recently reported homeopathy websites to both regulators. It will be a while before I hear of any outcome (assuming that I do hear).

    Interesting to watch UK homeopathy implode. I wonder if phrenology suffered a similar fate, in a similar manner!


    1. It's more likely some homeopaths will leave the SoH. IIRC, it's happened before and lead to the formation of the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths. It's hearsay but it has been suggested that a clash of egos was involved.

    2. A clash of homeopathic egos? Surely not...

  3. As I said in my newsletter yesterday (The different faces of the Society of Homeopaths - Nightingale Collaboration), this is also a test of the PSA: what do they think of one of their Accredited Registers attacking one of the regulators the PSA mandate they have to comply with?


Comment policy: I enthusiastically welcome corrections and I entertain polite disagreement ;) Because of the nature of this blog it attracts a LOT - 5 a day at the moment - of spam comments (I write about spam practices,misleading marketing and unevidenced quackery) and so I'm more likely to post a pasted version of your comment, removing any hyperlinks.

Comments written in ALL CAPS LOCK will be deleted and I won't publish any pro-homeopathy comments, that ship has sailed I'm afraid (it's nonsense).