A new study titled “Acupuncture, ACC and the Medicines Act” by Society for Science Based Healthcare member Daniel Ryan, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, exposes the surprising extent of misleading medical claims made on over a hundred New Zealand based acupuncture websites.

Section 58(1)(a) of the Medicines Act prohibits the publication of advertisements that claim a treatment can prevent, mitigate or cure any of a list of serious conditions, such as infertility and cancer. The study looked at claims being made by acupuncturists in NZ that they can treat these conditions.

The study found that, for the 101 included websites, the three most frequent claims regarded the treatment or prevention of mental illness, infertility and arthritis. Combined, these claims appeared on 73% of the websites that were examined. The study also found 11% of sites claimed acupuncture could treat or prevent cancer, 23% diabetes, 19% thrombosis and 14% heart disease.

Though there had been more than a dozen successful complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about misleading acupuncture advertisements prior to this study, it was not clear how widespread the issue was.

In the last 9 months the ASA stopped accepting new complaints about acupuncture, and complaints to ACC about registered practitioners have not prompted any regulatory action. ACC relies on two industry bodies, Acupuncture NZ and NZASA, to suspend or remove Annual Practising Certificates from acupuncturists.

“These advertisements are a danger to the public” said study author Daniel Ryan.
“I have made complaints to both ACC and acupuncture’s professional bodies in the past, but with no real success – the companies have been allowed to continue making their misleading claims, and still receive ACC funding.”

ACC subsidises acupuncture treatments at a rate of $67 per hour, and figures released under the Official Information Act reveal ACC spent $33.2 million on acupuncture claims in the 2016/17 financial year. This figure has more than doubled from $15.6 million in 2009/10, with a total of $210 million spent over the last decade. These payouts are despite a lack of solid evidence to support many of the funded acupuncture treatments. The best scientific evidence suggests that acupuncture is no more than a theatrical placebo.

“We need to ensure that taxpayers’ money is only used to pay for evidence-based treatments – it’s not just acupuncture that’s a problem. The government needs to review its funding of acupuncture, and stop wasting money” said Mr Ryan. “I strongly encourage New Zealand’s acupuncture professional bodies to publicly condemn companies with websites which use any terms covered by section 58 of the Medicines Act”

The Society for Science Based Healthcare believes that acupuncture’s two professional bodies should start taking complaints about acupuncture advertising seriously, and should revoke Practising Certificates from any acupuncturist making claims in breach of section 58 of the Medicines Act. The chair of the society, Mark Hanna, said “Now that we know the extent of this problem, it needs to be addressed. It’s not fair for New Zealanders to continue to be misled by acupuncturists.”

Key findings from the study

  • Most NZ acupuncture websites are likely to be in breach of Section 58(1)(a) of the Medicines Act.
  • Most Acupuncture NZ council members’ websites and NZASA executive board members’ websites are also likely to be in breach.
  • Nearly all acupuncturists are eligible for ACC payments.
New study finds acupuncture claims overstep the mark
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