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.
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.
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.
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.
Updated: 22 Aug 2012
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