At the Society for Science Based Healthcare, our activism takes several forms. Many of our activist members combat misleading advertising by laying complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Medsafe and the Commerce Commission. Another avenue we pursue is making Official Information Act requests to uncover government spending on therapies that are not supported by evidence. We also endeavour to make submissions on proposals relevant to our mission, such as the Pharmacy Council’s suggested update to their Code of Ethics and the Natural Health and Supplementary Products Bill.
Homeopathy in Pharmacies
Since it was published in 2011, pharmacies in New Zealand have been bound by the Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011, an industry standard created by New Zealand’s pharmacies regulator, the Pharmacy Council. Section 6.9 of this code requires:
Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.
Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011 | Pharmacy Council of New Zealand
Despite this, many New Zealand pharmacies promote and supply a number of healthcare products not supported by credible evidence of efficacy. One of these is a homeopathic product produced in New Zealand called “No-Jet-Lag”. This product is claimed to prevent jet lag, but that claim is not supported by any credible evidence. When we lodged a complaint with the ASA regarding a No-Jet-Lag display in an Auckland pharmacy they ruled to uphold the complaint on that basis.
To that pharmacy’s credid, they promised to remove “No-Jet-Lag” from sale if the complaint was upheld. However, the manufacturer’s website claims that most New Zealand pharmacies stock this product.
In late 2014 we laid a complaint directly with the Pharmacy Council regarding a consumer being misled in another Auckland pharmacy, which had promoted and sold a different homeopathic remedy to them without making it clear that the product was homeopathic and not supported by credible evidence of efficacy.
Although the Pharmacy Council wrote to the pharmacy in question, and they have since moved their homeopathic products to behind the counter, the code of ethics was not enforced by either the Pharmacy Council or the Health and Disability Commissioner.
Prompted by pressure to bring pharmacy practice in line with the code of ethics, in August 2015 the Pharmacy Council proposed to change the wording of their code of ethics. This proposed change would allow the sale of “complementary therapies” that are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy, and would add another section to require that sufficient information for an informed decision be given to any purchaser.
In response to this proposal, we developed a submission with new proposed wording that we hope would offer more effective consumer protection in pharmacies: Pharmacy Council Code of Ethics Proposal
Several influencial organisations, including the New Zealand Medical Association representing medical professionals and the Pharmaceutical Society representing professional pharmacists, also made submissions that strongly opposed the Pharmacy Council’s proposed new wording. You can read more about submissions made on this proposal in this submissions roundup.
Magnetic Mattress Underlays
In late 2013, we lodged 7 complaints regarding online advertisements by Woolrest Biomag for their magnetic mattress underlays and other products. These complaints addressed our concerns that Biomag was making unsubstantiated and misleading therapeutic claims regarding their magnetic mattress underlay products, and in doing so that they were being socially irresponsible.
In response to these complaints, the ASA asked Biomag to either substantiate their complaints or to withdraw them. Biomag did not adequately substantiate any of the therapeutic claims addressed in any of the 7 complaints. Some of their claims were removed, resulting in those complaints being settled, and the remaining claims were neither removed nor adequately substantiated so the ASA ruled that the complaints about them be upheld.
Some of the claims that Biomag decided to remove instead of attempting to substantiate them were:
- Their magnetic black waist support can “enable to give you the drug free pain relief you really deserve.”
- Their gold magnet bracelet can provide “drug-free pain relief all day, every day”
- Their magnetic mattress underlay can provide “natural pain relief”
- Their magnetic mattress underlay can provide “Relief from Aches and Pains that Plague Everyday Life…”
- “Your BioMag mattress pad will not only ease your pain, but also will help you get a deeper, restorative sleep”
- “Put simply, the magnets help your blood circulation, which helps to reduce inflammation that causes pain and aids the removal of toxins.”
Some of the claims that Biomag was unable to substantiate and was therefore told to remove by the ASA were:
- Their product causes “blood vessels to dilate”
- “We are proud to tell you that 95% of our customers find their pain is eased and their sleep is improved.”
- “Millions of people around the world have found remarkable success with magnetic therapy.”
- “The general [scientific] consensus is that the magnetic force stimulates nerve-endings to promote blood flow to injured or swollen joints, causing the blood vessels to dilate.”
In April 2014, a complaint was submitted in regarding another company selling similar products: Magne-Sleep. They advertised in the New Zealand Herald that their magnetic mattress underlays could offer “More sleep. Less Pain!”. The ad also contained advertised their URL “www.painfreeday.co.nz”. Initially this complaint was settled when they offered to withdraw the “Less Pain!” claim, but it was later upheld on appeal as it was decided the inclusion of the URL “www.painfreeday.co.nz” was also misleading in this context.
Another complaint regarding Woolrest Biomag was settled in mid 2014, when they removed Google Ads claiming their products could offer pain relief, and also removed the claim “Drug-Free Pain Relief” from the header of their website. As of October 2014, we have an outstanding complaint with the ASA regarding this same claim made daily on the radio, and have also alerted the ASA to the fact that various statements against which previous complaints were upheld are still made on the Woolrest Biomag website.
If you see advertisements for magnetic mattress underlays by Woolrest Biomag, Magne-Sleep, or anyone else making therapeutic claims about these products you believe to be unsubstantiated, please let us know about it. Particularly if those claims are similar to the ones listed above. If we agree with you that their claims appear unsubstantiated, we would be happy to help you submit a complaint about it or, if you’d prefer, to complain about it ourselves.
If you’re interested in reading more about these complaints, we encourage you to read the ASA’s decisions:
- 13/544 Biomag website (settled)
- 13/556 Biomag website (settled)
- 13/557 Biomag website (upheld in part)
- 13/558 Biomag Google Ads (settled)
- 13/559 Biomag Website (upheld in part)
- 13/560 Biomag Grownups website (settled)
- 13/561 Monique Bradley website (Woolrest Biomag) (settled)
- 14/209 Magne-Sleep NZ Herald ad (upheld)
- 14/353 Woolrest Biomag Google Ads (settled)
Amber Teething Necklaces
Amber teething necklaces are often advertised as being able to help infants through teething, as well as being able to assist with various other ailments such as eczema. The most common mechanism claimed by sellers is that, when warmed by a baby’s skin, they release a chemical that is absorbed into the bloodstream and has a therapeutic effect. However, there is no evidence to support these claims, and many reasons to consider them implausible. There are also safety concerns regarding the products, as infants could be strangled or choke on beads in the necklaces are caught or break.
In order to protect consumers from misleading claims about these products, complaints against many advertisers were laid with the ASA starting in November 2012. After 1 year, 8 settled complaints, and 5 upheld complaints, something changed. The ASA collaborated with Medsafe and adjudicators from the Therapeutic Advertising Pre-vetting System (TAPS) to produce a new guideline: Guide for Advertisers when promoting products such as amber teething necklaces
This guideline has since been used successfully to clarify the types of claims advertisers are not allowed to make about amber teething necklaces. Some examples from the guideline include:
- Baltic amber teething necklaces have been a traditional remedy for teething babies in the Balticregions [sic] for centuries
- Relieve or assist with teething pain in babies.
- Have therapeutic qualities
- Release healing oils
Unfortunately, some of the businesses we complained about refused to withdraw their misleading claims about amber teething necklaces even after the ASA had upheld complaints against them. These complaints were then escalated to the Commerce Commission and Medsafe as potentially violating the Fair Trading and Medicines Acts.
In November 2015, the Commerce Commission issued a warning to Baa Baa Beads, who had refused to withdraw their misleading claims in response to the ASA upholding two separate complaints. Commerce Commissioner Anna Rawlings said in a media release:
In our view Baa Baa Beads’ conduct is likely to have breached the Fair Trading Act as the business could not provide reasonable grounds to support all of the claims it made about its products.
Baa Baa Beads warned over health claims | Commerce Commission
Following this, we informed the Commerce Commission of the large number of misleading claims made about amber beads on Trade Me. In May 2016, in response to the formal warning issued to Baa Baa Beads, Trade Me pulled over 100 listings for amber beads and published a blog post about the amber beads and misleading claims.
It means you can’t make any unsubstantiated claims about amber beads in the listing body. If your claims can’t be rigorously scientifically proven, then don’t state them.
To amber bead or not to amber bead? | Trade Me Trust & Safety Blog