Should advertising watchdogs get involved in scientific discussion?

Apparently not satisfied with being the UK’s advertising enforcer and policeman of the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR), the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has now inserted itself into the scientific debate surrounding vaccines and autism. Advertising standards and scientific debate are not usual bedfellows.

Attacking Scientific Alternatives

The debate over whether the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) combined vaccine causes autism in a subset of children is one of the most heated of recent years. A UK service called Babyjabs, operated by general practitioner and vaccine researcher Dr Richard Halvorsen, offers parents single or limited combination vaccines, including individual measles, mumps and rubella shots. Babyjabs’ MMR information page was recently the subject of an ASA ruling that found it guilty of three “misleading and unsubstantiated” claims, breaching Sections 3, 4 and 12 of the CAP Code.

The effect of the ASA’s ruling was to remove suggestions by the Babyjabs MMR page that the MMR vaccine might be a triggering factor for autism in a small proportion of vaccinated children. A fact, which of course is still a very real possibility, despite long and arduous denial by the medical establishment, governments and vaccine manufacturers. A fact that also led directly to the destruction of Andrew Wakefield’s medical career in the UK. Although it has complied with the letter of the ruling, the Babyjabs MMR page still contains a couple of references to a potential MMR–autism link, and has in fact added some text about a relevant Italian court ruling.

Apparently Skeptical Authority

It’s important to realise that Babyjabs is by no means an ‘antivaccination’ site – it’s a vaccination clinic that offers vaccines that may not be easily available elsewhere. Its MMR page is attempting to offer impartial educational information without directly selling anything, and only falls under the ASA’s advertising remit because Babyjabs offers a commercial service.

What really concerns us about this case is that the ASA has unilaterally handed itself the authority to police an important scientific debate, with absolutely no basis in law or evidence of any relevant scientific competence. Its ruling merely provides opposing evidence to that provided by Babyjabs, while pointing repeatedly to “general medical opinion” to further justify its decision.

The latter is deliciously ironic, since any natural healthcare advocate who referred to the favourable opinion of a respected body, such as the World Health Organization, would be quickly accused of an ‘appeal to authority’ by anti-natural skeptics. Oddly enough, the ASA Babyjabs adjudication was triggered by a single complaint – from a proud skeptic.

Anti-Suppression Alliance?

This isn’t the first time we've seen the ASA taking up the cudgel on behalf of the more conventional view and we're sure it's not the last. It's always harder to forge against the tide than to go with it, but thankfully more and more people around the world are demanding change. It’s important to keep perspective when faced with these types of challenges. Advertising standards authorities, like the UK ASA, usually have no direct legal or regulatory powers. They are merely enterprises set up to oversee self-regulation of the advertising industry, with no legal ability to levy fines or prosecute anyone. The UK's ASA has managed to get the ear of government so can report individuals or companies to regulatory bodies such as Trading Standards or the medicines regulator.  It can also, in exceptional cases, leverage support from the Office of Fair Trading. But less savoury, is the agreement with Google to post its adjudication findings top of the search ranking when a search is carried out on that business or individual. For an authority set up to police misleading claims, ironically this action seems the most confusing of all for consumers. Many of whom will never realise that the ASA is a self-assigned industry watchdog, who appoint themselves judge and jury over issues that they may have little or no competence in, such as complex medical and scientific evaluation of evidence.

Call to action

  • Specifically with regard to the MMR vaccine, the only way to make a responsible choice over whether to vaccinate your child is to get informed – which isn’t easy in the current climate. Our Vaccine Choice page on MMR is a great place to start
  • If you’re a natural health practitioner or product manufacturer in the UK, get informed about how the CAP Code and other relevant legislation affects what you can say about yourself and your products. A good place to start is our downloadable information pack, Rules and Regulations Affecting Clinical Practice
  • If you are targeted by the ASA because of your website, don’t panic! There are ways to promote yourself that won’t draw their fire. Again, you will need to become familiar with the relevant legislation, especially the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation and the European medicines code

 

ANH Homepage
ANH Vaccine Choice campaign page

Updated: 22 Aug 2012

Thank you for the response.

Firstly I note that you have avoided all of my questions I ask about whether Babyjabs Ltd can truly be considered to be a source of impartial information on MMR that doesnt 'directly sell' as you claim. The potential conflict of interest is obvious.

With regards to the ASA, you misunderstand both their role and how the burden of proof actually works. The burden in advertising lies with those making the claims to demonstrate that they are correct. The ASA did not need, or attempt to disprove anything.

Now in determining whether the evidence supports a claim it is inevitable that the ASA will probably end up make reference to the consensus and may in fact end up making difficult adjudications on very complicated matters. If you had limited you argument to this and avoid overegging the omelette I would have agreed to a point.

I think it’s obvious that the claims (now removed) lead readers to the inevitable conclusion that prevalence of autism is increasing and that MMR is linked or is directly causing this rise. Right next to a link selling the single jabs alternative(if you consider 2 out of 3 jabs an alternative).

There is no issue with the ASA referring to WHO and the DH if they represent the consensus view of expert in this field, they are an appropriate authority. A fallacious appeal to authority would be for example using Dr Richard Halvorsen’s view, since he goes against the expert consensus, isn’t an expert in this particular field and has a potential conflict of interest which may bias his view (selling a book and selling singel jabs).

I also notice you refer to Dr Halvorsen as a ‘vaccine researcher’. Would you be kind enough to point me towards any research he has had published in peer reviewed journals on the specific subjects of MMR, vaccines or autism?

Thank you for responding. Engaging in circular arguments is a waste of your and our time, so we'll keep this very short.

Of course there is a commercial interest in Babyjabs - to deny that would be nonsensical. But our story serves merely to address the difficulty inherent in a self-regulatory body, without specific expertise in the field of evaluation of complex medical or scientific research and data, making adjudications that warrant a deep understanding of these issues. The fact that Babyjabs supplies single vaccines, in itself a service provided by only a very limited number of clinics, should not directly affect the quality of educational information it provides.

We believe it is important for clinicians to provide accurate and substantiated information, whether or not they provide commercial services. We support transparency, so believe it is important for commercial interests to be clearly identifiable by the consumer. We have never argued that the only reliable source of data is from non-commercial sources.

I just find it a bit odd that you emphasise the 'educational aspect' when at the end of the day it is information which has been provided by a private limited company - Babyjabs Ltd.

Private companies are not altruistic they operate to make money. If education on vaccines was his purpose, he could have gone for charitable status - much more tax efficient. Do you think that a commerical company is likely to be a wholly impartial source of information, or do you think there is potential for a conflict of interest to occur? To quote the "Do I, Don't I section of your MMR campaign page:

"You know that when people or websites are selling something they may not be offering completely unbiased information — and that goes for governments and companies as well as individuals of course".

It seems to me that if a Pharma company offer advice you cry foul, but don't hold others to account to the same standard.

If you read the ASA adjudiction you will see that rather than wanting to be a self appointed "authority to police an important scientific debate" the ASA only actually investigated three very specific claims made by the Doctor on his website. In each case he was found to have insufficent evidence to make these claims and was asked to remove them.

Whether intentional or not, the inaccurate information removed from the website would have done one thing - further increase worry surrounding MMR and encouraged people to seek alternatives like the single vaccinations.

Which it just so happens Babyjabs Ltd sell.

You have made this out to be a battle about a much larger issue - the wider MMR debate but it not, its about misleading advertising and the specifics.

Hi Slipp, we read the ASA adjudication before writing the story, thanks – and the fundamental point we made was that the ASA hasn’t uncovered any “inaccurate information”, meaning information that can be proven to be incorrect. As we said in the article, all the ASA did was, “Provide opposing evidence to that provided by Babyjabs, while pointing repeatedly to “general medical opinion” to further justify its decision”. In fact, we may have been too kind, since the only opposing scientific evidence - as opposed to the WHO and UK Dept of Health positions - presented by the ASA was a single, non-specific reference to the Cochrane Collaboration!

In our view, the following sentence sums up both the ASA’s attitude and its adjudication: “Consumers were likely to infer from the claim, that the "real increase in the number of children with autism" was not just down to increased diagnosis, but the vaccine might have played a role in bringing about that increase”. The vaccine may indeed have played such a role; indeed, the ASA is happy for Babyjabs to say on its MMR page, “Research...has been unable to exclude the possibility that [the MMR vaccine] is causing autism in a small number of susceptible children”. But step beyond bounds of debate arbitrarily set by the ASA, a body with no scientific expertise of its own and clearly reliant on establishment-friendly experts, and it immediately sets about removing evidence that might prompt the public to conclude that MMR could play a role in the increased autism figures. Which is something that even the ASA admits is a possibility!

The ASA is not only getting involved in scientific debate, but it’s tying itself in logical knots trying to protect the establishment viewpoint.

How can you claim Babyjabs is educational only, and not a commerical entity. This is inaccurate and misleading.

Babyjabs Limited is a private limited company (although dormant at present) which is owned entirely by Dr Richard Halvorsen who is the only shareholder.

Hi 'Slipp', thanks for your comment, although we can't work out quite where you're coming from. Our article clearly states, "[Babyjabs'] MMR page is attempting to offer impartial educational information without directly selling anything, and only falls under the ASA’s advertising remit because Babyjabs offers a commercial service." The link we provided takes the reader to a price list on the Babyjabs website! In other words, the MMR page itself is educational, but the overall website within which the MMR page sits is commercial.

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