Health 2000 is New Zealand’s largest natural health retailer. They have many stores throughout New Zealand, and also advertise online via their website and with an email newsletter. Every couple of months they publish a free magazine that can be picked up in any of their stores, which contains advertisements for products that they sell, along with the occasional article. In each of these magazines, there is a short article entitled “Chatterbox” on the opening page, just before the table of contents. In the June/July 2014 edition of this magazine, the “Chatterbox” article talks about the flu vaccine. Here is its second paragraph:
We are told to have the flu jab, as it is the only way to protect us from the flu. Not true. It is one option, and really should only be given to people with healthy immune systems that can cope with the onslaught of toxins and mercury injected into the body. If you read our April/May issue you will have seen our A-Z for avoiding colds and flu, providing many ideas on how to help yourself naturally. Haves, A. (2014 June-July). Chatterbox. Health 2000, 3
In response to this information, we laid a complaint with the editor of the magazine. The full complaint is embedded below (edited only for formatting):
This is a letter of complaint to the editor of the Health 2000 magazine on behalf of the Society for Science Based Healthcare. The article “CHATTERBOX” on page 3 of the June/July 2014 issue of the health 2000 magazine makes false assertions regarding the influenza vaccination, violating the first principle of the New Zealand Press Council regarding accuracy:
We are told to have the flu jab as it is the only way to protect us from flu. Not true. It is one option, and really should only be given to people with healthy immune systems that can cope with the onslaught of toxins and mercury injected into the body.
The first result for “nz flu vaccine mercury” on Google is http://www.fightflu.co.nz/faq, which states clearly that the flu vaccine does not contain mercury:
Does the vaccination contain thiomersal or mercury? No. It does not contain thiomersal (or any other mercury product).
Medsafe also makes data sheets for the vaccines publicly available. These data sheets contain information such as the vaccines’ contents and contraindications. For example, here is the data sheet for the 2014 seasonal influenza vaccination Fluvax®: http://www.medsafe.govt.nz/profs/datasheet/f/Fluvaxinj.pdf Given the ease at which authoritative information contrary to the assertions in this article can be found, it seems very likely that no fact checking has been undertaken. After discovering that this assertion is false, I contacted an immunisation expert regarding the article’s comments such as that the flu vaccine is an “onslaught of mercury and toxins”:
This is a misnomer and an emotive attempt to suggest that there are harmful chemicals in our vaccines. Firstly, there is no mercury in the current childhood vaccines in NZ and when there was it was in a miniscule amount and extremely unlikely to be harmful. Substantial evidence clearly shows that vaccines containing the mercury based preservative thiomersal had an excellent safety profile and were not associated with any of the adverse outcomes that the anti-vaccination lobby claims. Secondly, it is the quantity that makes a poison. Components in vaccines are present in miniscule quantities, some of them naturally occurring in our bodies. An example is formaldehyde, present in tiny amounts in some vaccines. Firstly formaldehyde is essential for DNA synthesis in our bodies and is produced and broken down constantly. There is around 60 times more formaldehyde in a pear than a vaccine. Health professionals do not suggest that the influenza vaccine is the only way to protect against flu. This is misrepresentation of their position. (for example here is the CDC 3 steps. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/preventing.htm) Healthy people respond better to the vaccine. However people with conditions that make them more likely to experience complications from influenza should be immunised. The vaccine is just as safe in people with compromised immune systems and cannot cause the flu. Helen Petousis-Harris, PhD Director of Immunisation Research and Vaccinology, Immunisation Advisory Centre, University of Auckland Senior Lecturer, Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care, Faculty of Medical and Health Science, University of Auckland
Influenza can be a life-threatening illness, and the influenza vaccine is a safe and effective tool for preventing it. The misinformation in your article could influence people who would otherwise get the vaccination to not get it, which in turn could lead to more people contracting influenza. Misleading your readers on such an important health topic is frankly irresponsible. An appropriate response to this complaint would be to publish a correction to this article, giving it appropriate prominence taking into account the prominence of the original misinformation. In accordance with the rules of the New Zealand Press Council, if your response to this complaint is not satisfactory or if I receive no response from you within a period of 10 working days from the date on which you receive this message, this complaint will be escalated to the New Zealand Press Council.
In response to our complaint, Health 2000 have promised the following:
In response to the complaint we will:
- Run a clarification in the next August-September magazine to the effect of: “The June-July Chatterbox mentioned mercury in flu vaccines, referring to current flu vaccines used in the USA. The article was written before we became aware of data on the 2014 flu vaccine in New Zealand, and that it did not contain mercury.“
- We will also extend the existing disclaimer in the magazine to include: “All content within this publication is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your health care professional. Health 2000 is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made by a user based on the content of this publication.“
It’s worth mentioning that most flu vaccinations in the USA do not contain thiomersal (it’s only present in multi-dose vials), and no vaccines contain elemental mercury. Those vaccines that do contain thiomersal are no less safe, however, and there is evidence showing that the levels of thiomersal used in vaccines containing it are safe. This also isn’t the first year that the flu vaccine hasn’t contained thiomersal. While it’s unfortunate that Health 2000’s response doesn’t acknowledge that they were also misleading when they said the flu vaccine contains “toxins” and that they implied that people with compromised immune systems should not be vaccinated, we are still happy to see that they have offered to print this correction without the complaint having to be escalated to the Press Council.
When the magazine article stated that:
We are told to have the flu jab, as it is the only way to protect us from the flu. Not true.
It seems that it may have been referring to some of the products sold by Health 2000. One of these, GO Healthy Vir-Defence was advertised in their email newsletter on the 9th of June. The advertisement made the following claims about this product:
It helps build immune health with key ingredients such as echinacea, olive leaf, low odour garlif, Pau d’arco, elderberry, vitamin C, andrographis and zinc. Because prevention is better than cure, help mum stay well with GO Health Vir-Defence. A variety of natural ingredients have been found to be effective at keeping lurgies at bay, help support the body when bugs do hit, while helping build immune health. Key ingredients for immune health such as echinacea, olive leaf, low odour garlic, Pau D’ Arco, elderberry, vitamin C, andrographis and zinc are all used in the formulation of GO Vir-Defence, designed to support recovery from ills and chills. All of these ingredients are supplied at optimum strength to support a strong imumne system and help build the body’s natural defences.
If, after reading all that, you think it sounds like Health 2000 is trying to convince you that taking GO Healthy Vir-Defence might make you less likely to suffer from viral infections like influenza and the common cold, then you’re not alone. We thought so too, but because we weren’t sure if these claims were supported by evidence we decided to check. What we found wasn’t encouraging, so we submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority. In response to our complaint, Health 2000 did point out that one of the references in the complaint, a systematic review from the Cochrane Collaboration that examined Zinc for the common cold, did find some evidence in favour of zinc supplementation for prevention of the common cold. Here is the plain language summary of the review:
The common cold is often caused by the rhinovirus. It is one of the most widespread illnesses and is a leading cause of visits to the doctor and absence from school and work. Complications of the common cold include ear infection, sinusitis and exacerbations of reactive airway diseases. There is no proven treatment for the common cold. However, an even partially effective treatment for treating and preventing the common cold could markedly reduce the health problems and economic losses associated with it. Zinc inhibits replication of the virus and has been tested in trials for treatment of the common cold. This review identified 18 randomised controlled trials, enrolling 1781 participants of all age groups, comparing zinc with placebo (no zinc). We found that zinc (lozenges or syrup) reduces the average duration of the common cold in healthy people, when taken within 24 hours of onset of symptoms. In people taking zinc their cold symptoms are also less likely to persist beyond seven days of treatment. Prophylactic zinc supplementation for at least five months reduces incidence, school absences and prescription of antibiotics for children with the common cold, although antibiotics are not required for the common cold. People in whom common cold symptoms might be troublesome (for example, those with underlying chronic illness, immunodeficiency, asthma, etc.) have not been studied, so the use of zinc cannot currently be recommended for them. Given the variability in the dose, formulation and duration of zinc use in the included studies, more research is needed to address these before zinc use can be generally recommended for the common cold. However, as the zinc lozenges formulation has been widely studied, and there is a significant reduction in the duration of cold at a dose of ≥ 75 mg/day, for those considering using zinc it would be best to use it at this dose throughout the cold. When using zinc lozenges (not as syrup or tablets) the likely benefit has to be balanced against side effects, notably a bad taste and nausea. Regarding prophylactic zinc supplementation, currently no firm recommendation can be made because of insufficient data. Singh & Das 2013 Zinc for the common cold
The complaint had quoted the section that stated “Regarding prophylactic zinc supplementation, currently no firm recommendation can be made because of insufficient data”. Health 2000 pointed out that:
The sentence the complainant has singled out, refers to recommendations for the variability in the dose, formulation and duration of zinc use in the included studies, not whether zinc works or not.
The review’s conclusion stated that “there is a significant reduction in the duration of cold at a dose of ≥ 75 mg/day”, but this would only be relevant to users of GO Healthy Vir-Defence if they took at least 15 capsules a day, as a single capsule contains the equivalent of only 5 mg of zinc. Health 2000 recommends on their website that users take one or two capsules per day. Aside from that, Health 2000 didn’t provide any more substantiation for any of their claims. As such, the Advertising Standards Board ruled to uphold the complaint:
The Complaints Board also noted that the disclaimer in the advertisement and [not] referring to specific illnesses, did not absolve the Advertiser from being required to substantiation [sic] the claims made. The Complaints Board acknowledged the Advertiser had provided some substantiation to support the claims made about zinc in the advertisement. It noted however this was the only substantiation supplied to support the myriad of claims in the advertisement. The Complaints Board noted that the advertisement had been approved by TAPS, but the Advertiser had not provided any substantiation of significant substance to the Complaints Board to support the claims made. As such, the Complaints Board said the advertisement was likely to mislead consumers as the claims made were be [sic] substantiated by the Advertiser in breach of Principle 2 of the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code. The Complaints Board said the advertisement did not observe a high standard of social responsibility to consumers and society required by advertisement for therapeutic products and was in breach of Principle 3 [of the] Therapeutic Products Advertising Code. Accordingly, the Complaints Board ruled to Uphold the complaint. Advertising Standards Complaints Board 14/260 – Health 2000 Email Advertisement
The complaint raised that Health 2000 seemed to have taken pains to avoid referring to any specific illnesses, instead using a variety of terms such as “lurgies”, “bugs”, and “ills and chills”. In response to this, Health 2000 said:
The complainant must surely be aware that the use of vague and ill-defined terms is not a choice in this industry.
In response to our complaint regarding the article in their magazine, Health 2000 said that:
We acknowledge that as New Zealand’s largest natural health retailer our brand is prominent and subject to greater scrutiny, but this is the third complaint from Mr Hanna this year. We wonder why he is not complaining about the outrageous claims we see our competitors getting away with in print.
An earlier ASA complaint from Mark Hanna was settled by Health 2000 when they agreed to remove some therapeutic claims regarding a spirulina supplement. This year he has also made 19 other complaints about therapeutic claims that seem to be misleading, and has not targeted Health 2000 specifically. We find it concerning that New Zealand’s self-professed “largest natural health retailer” feels “the use of vague and ill-defined terms is not a choice in this industry”, and that they seem to be aware of “outrageous claims we see our competitors getting away with in print”. Consumers should be wary that not everything they are told by sellers of “natural health” products and services may be true or supported by evidence.