The Society for Science Based Healthcare has had a complaint upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority against a misleading advertisement for acupuncture.

ACC spent more on acupuncture last year than the government expects to spend on the flag referendum, but many funded treatments are not supported by evidence.


The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld a complaint against Five Elements acupuncture clinic, ruling an outdoor sign claiming acupuncture could provide various health benefits was misleading.

The complaint, laid by Society for Science Based Healthcare member Susan Sinclair, alleged that the advertisement’s claims that acupuncture has health benefits for various conditions “have not been substantiated”. Both the ASA’s codes and the Fair Trading Act require that all claims made in advertisements must be substantiated by adequate evidence.

The sign promoted the “Health Benefits of Acupuncture” and listed various conditions including arthritis, facial paralysis, apoplexy, herpes zoster, and infantile malnutrition.

Five Elements Acupuncture

In response to the complaint, Five Elements sent the ASA abstracts of two studies of acupuncture for osteoarthritis of the knee and infantile malnutrition in an attempt to substantiate their advertisement.

The Complaints Board’s ruling stated that:

The Complaints Board emphasised therapeutic claims made in advertisements for any therapeutic product or service, did require substantiation as advertisements of this nature were required to observe a high standard of social responsibility.

The Complaints Board was of the view the advertisement implied acupuncture could treat the conditions listed in the advertisement which was a strong claim and said this needed substantiation that was more robust than that supplied by the advertiser.

In light of its findings, the Complaints Board said the sign implied acupuncture could treat or benefit the conditions listed and, as such, the advertisement was misleading.

In response to the complaint, Five Elements also quoted Dr Kate Baddock from the NZMA GP council from a 2013 article in NZ Doctor:

Under current regulations, there is no requirement to prove these CAMs [complementary and alternative medicines] work as claimed (efficacy does not have to be scientifically proven), and many of them have claims that include the words: “may” and “boost” or “improve”.

The Society for Science Based Healthcare’s Chair, Mark Hanna, said

Saying regulations do not legally require a treatment to be proven does not justify misleading patients about its effects. It’s disappointing to see this clinic trying to shirk the responsibility we expect of healthcare providers.

People have the right to make informed decisions about their healthcare. When a healthcare provider misinforms their patients, they deprive them of this right.


Five Elements’ response to the complaint mentioned ACC’s funding of acupuncture in defense of their claims:

ACC has recognised the benefits of acupuncture and since 2005 it has been accepted in practice by physiotherapists, osteopaths and the likes.

Through documents obtained via the Official Information Act, the Society for Science Based Healthcare has discovered that ACC’s reviews of the evidence for acupuncture have only drawn positive conclusions for three conditions covered by ACC: frozen shoulder, chronic shoulder pain, and chronic neck pain.

In the 2014/15 financial year ACC spent $26,388,572 on acupuncture treatments, comparable to the $25,700,000 projected cost of the flag referendum. ACC’s spending includes $662,598 for fracture/dislocation and $317,251 for laceration/puncture wound injuries.

Over the past 3 years ACC has spent over $70,000,000* on acupuncture treatments, despite the apparent lack of evidence. Since 2003, ACC has spent $81,970 on acupuncture for dental injuries and $10,278 on acupuncture for treating deafness.

*The original version of this article contained an error, saying ACC spent over $80,000,000 on acupuncture treatments in the past 3 years. ACC spent $26,388,572 in 2014/15, $24,056,508 in 2013/14, $19,961,329 in 2012/13, and $16,958,808 in 2011/12. The correct sum spent over the past 3 years is $70,406,409.

The ACC’s best practices document for registered acupuncturists, the Acupuncture Treatment Profiles, prescribes various forms of acupuncture to treat many injury types in ways that are not supported by evidence, such as laser acupuncture to treat a toxic reaction to a bee sting.

On the 13th of August the Society for Science Based Healthcare requested under the Official Information Act that ACC provide them with the evidence for the content of this document. So far, ACC has not been able to find any of this evidence.

Prior to this complaint, the ASA has upheld four complaints from the Society for Science Based Healthcare against ACC registered acupuncture clinics due to misleading health claims in advertisements: Lulu Acupuncture, Gill Burdett, Dr Mala Dutta Acupuncture and Patrice Hardy.

Despite these rulings, all four of those acupuncture clinics are still ACC registered. At least one of these clinics, Lulu Acupuncture Clinic, has refused to remove their misleading claims in the four months since the complaint was upheld.

In response to the complaint against them, Lulu Acupuncture said that if acupuncture doesn’t work as it is claimed:

…the government should close all Acupuncture Clinics, and immediately withdraw the ACC registration from all Acupuncturists.

The Society for Science Based Healthcare agrees that it is inappropriate for acupuncture clinics that mislead their patients to be registered with ACC.

Society Chair Mark Hanna said:

The fact that ACC will pay for acupuncture gives it tacit government approval, and leads to people having a confidence in these treatments that isn’t justified by the evidence. This has created an environment where ACC registered acupuncturists have been able to mislead patients, and tens of millions of dollars of the public’s money has been spent on unproven treatments.

If ACC can’t find the missing evidence for their acupuncture guidelines, they owe it to the New Zealand public to subject their guidelines to a thorough review. No one should have to worry that their government-approved healthcare provider is misleading them.

Red Flag for Acupuncture
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