In his book “Bad Science”, Ben Goldacre refers to a ‘detox’ footbath in which you put your feet in a bath of salt water and an electic current passed through the salt water suposedly causes ‘toxins’ to be sucked from your body. The
mark client can see the water turning a yucky brown colour so if s’he knows no chemistry s/he is going to believe that the brown stuff is indeed toxins. In fact it is a complex salt produced by electrolysis causing a reaction between the salt solution and the electrodes and will be produced without anyone’s feet in the bath. I produced a similar effect with two 9V batteries in series and a couple of steel nails as electrodes. A similar treatment is still on sale.
The sellers are Vibrant Health and they make a number of claims for this treatment for which there is little or no evidence:
Relief from arthritis
Help with menstrual symptoms
Improved kidney and liver function
Detoxification of heavy metals and mercury
Raised energy levels
Support for a detox diet plan
I complained to the ASA and eventually got this response:
Dear Mr Hawcock
As you may be aware, the ASA has received an unprecedented number of complaints about a range of alternative therapies since it extended its online remit on 1 March 2011. Those complaints have been processed in the usual way; some were not valid, some were valid but did not raise issues we judged to constitute serious breaches and some gave us reason to believe that an investigation was warranted and were passed to the Investigations teams.
The ASA is currently dealing with a disproportionately high number of on-going alternative therapy cases and the amount of work required to resolve these complaints is hampering us from providing a good service to all of our customers.
We aim to ensure that all advertising is legal, decent, honest and truthful and we do not seek to focus our attention on particular sectors to the exclusion of others. As the balance of our attention has been tipped in favour of alternative therapies we have decided to redress that with immediate effect.
We have considered your complaint in this context and have made an operational decision to de-prioritise it in line with our desire to limit the number of on-going investigations we are conducting. We do not feel that these claims warrant the same priority as some of the very well known and more mainstream therapies. In particular, we take the view that the potential for consumer detriment is much lower for this therapy by comparison to others. We therefore feel that we cannot justify allocating resources to this therapy, at this time.
We intend to focus our attention on key mainstream therapies for the time being and we will return to the less popular and less well known ones when sufficient resources are freed up. This will in all likelihood involve one or two key formal investigations followed by compliance action across the sector. If your complaint is one that we decide to investigate we will let you know what we are doing in due course. In all other cases you should not expect hear from us again in relation to your complaint.
I appreciate that this may come as a disappointment to you but I hope that you appreciate that we need to take a structured approach to investigating complaints about alternative health therapies. I would like to thank you for taking the time and effort in writing to us. Please do visit our website to keep up to date on our progress.
While I understand the ASA’s need to prioritise their workload, I am not convinced that the detriment to the customer is low. As with all useless remedies, there is the risk that the user will eschew conventional treatment, particularly when the practitioner makes grand claims. Also, when an electric current is passed through a salt solution, sodium hydroxide (aka caustic soda) solyion is produced. Prolonged exposure to this does not do your skin much good. Apart from this, there is the cost – a single session costs £30 and a booked course of ten costs £250. A certain detriment to the customers’ wallets, I fear.
The take-away message seems to be is that if your actions are not too much to the detriment of your customers, your activities will pass beneath the ASA’s radar.