Web health claims likely target in UK online crackdown

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Advertising Asa

Web health claims likely target in UK online crackdown
New Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) powers to monitor and adjudicate on online marketing materials will place web-based messaging for healthy foods under serious scrutiny for the first time, with many likely to fall foul of the agency’s guidelines, according to a UK labelling expert.

A scan of corporate websites and social networking tools conducted by NutraIngredients reveals a plethora of messages that contravene EU health claim laws, which the ASA will be able to rule on from March 1, 2011, after a six-month grace period expires.

Owen Warnock, food law partner at UK firm Eversheds, said food and supplements companies needed to critically assess their messaging or risk ASA action and the concomitant bad publicity that is a likely consequence.

“Websites carrying material in breach of the EU nutrition and health claims regulation are likely to be the subject of industry and consumer complaints,” ​Warnock said this morning.

“Nearly all food businesses have websites and so any sensible company should take a serious look at whether they comply with the ASA Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) code.”

The ASA is a complaints driven body but it does engage in compliance surveys in particular sectors and has received a substantial resources boost as part of the announcement made today to proactively rake the internet for potential breaches.

It has received 4500 complaints about online marketing since 2008 which it has not been able to process due to the previous restriction in its activities.

Search engine support and sanctioning

It has enlisted the support of major search engines to this end, an ASA spokesperson said. “For this to be effective we need to work with the search engines.”

In this direction, the ASA proposed two potential sanctions against those players that failed to comply with its rulings:

  • Removal of paid-for search advertising – ads that link to the page hosting the non-compliant marketing communication may be removed with the agreement of the search engines.
  • ASA paid-for search advertisements - the ASA could place advertisements online highlighting an advertiser‟s continued non-compliance.

Search behemoth Google has donated £200,000 (€240,000) in seed capital for the project and the industry through online search and media agencies have agreed to donate 0.1 per cent of its search advertising spend to fund the ASA expansion – expected to raise another £700,000 (€841,000).

The ASA spokesperson said its staff would expand 10 per cent from around 100 to 110.

Warnock welcomed the expansion of ASA power but held concerns about how enforceable the determinations would be. “Smaller companies may not pay for any search engine advertising and may be more difficult to track,” ​he observed.

The new ASA remit pertains to websites and avenues like Facebook and Twitter but journalistic content is excluded.

“Website owners and agencies are urged to sign up to CAP Services at www.cap.org.uk to receive guidance and training to help ensure their sites comply with the new rules before 1 March 2011,”​ the ASA said in a statement.

CAP Chairman Andrew Brown added: “Extending the online remit of the ASA has been a top priority for UK industry over the last couple of years. Our aim has been to extend further in the online world the principles that are already well established in our system, namely those of effective consumer protection and fair competition.”

Related news

Show more

1 comment

The ASA has little credibility in health claim adjudication

Posted by Doug Cross,

We have had experience of being exposed to an ASA investigation, through an attempt to silence our legitimate web-based criticism of an organisation’s health claims.

After extemely acrimonious correspondence with the ASA, lasting well over a year, we eventually forced them to withdraw their action and drop the case, but only after an inordinate waste of our own time (see http://www.ukcaf.org/censored_the_bfss_attempt_to_suppress_informatio.html ).

The ASA ‘adjudication’ was wrong in its approach - our detailed fully-referenced scientific evidence that our statements were true was summarily dismissed by the ASA’s ‘case officer’ (‘Officer’? these people have no authority.

In our experience, the competence of the ASA in adjudicating issues of claims in the health field is decidedly questionable. Many unsupportable health claims are undoubtedly made on the internet, and an increase of ten in ASA staffing will have no significant effect or deterrent value whatsoever - after all, the ASA has no actual power to stop fraudulent advertisers, it is simply a paper tiger.

Our experience in several cases related to our own confrontation with them is that if an official or soi disant official body makes unsupportable or false health claims - and those issued in support of water fluoridation are an excellent example - the ASA has a history of supporting such ‘official’ advertising in the face of even the most detailed evidence to the contrary provided by the private sector.

Many supposedly beneficial claims are made by the government and its ill-informed spokespersons, recommending ‘treatments’ and ‘healthy living’ claims that have little or no credible scientific support. Many are issued purely on the basis of political decisions that have been adopted as the result of incessant lobbying from the pharmaceutical industries.

In medical claims controversies, the ASA buys in expertise, since its own competence is decidedly limited. So what method will it adopt to ensure that it selects appropriate ‘expert’ advisers who do not have vested interests in the products being advertised? It is difficult to find totally independent experts in the abstruse fields of medical toxicology, epidemiology, etc, that are relevant to deciding if a claim is ‘legal, decent and honest’.

The ASA should consider its methodology very carefully if it intends to enter this highly litigious field. There is enormous sensitivity to allegations of professional misconduct in the medical field, and given the high ratio of pharmaceutical products that are either ineffective or, at best, unreliable, the ASA will quickly become entangled in issues that could take them years to resolve. Their budget is ludicrously small compared to the money that the pharmaceutical sector can throw at it, and its reputation - such as it is already - is unlikely to survive a sustained attack from Big Pharma should anyone be so incautious as to refer a registered medicinal product for adjudication by the Agency.

Report abuse

Follow us


View more