Detox Footbaths Make A Comeback

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:

Improved circulation
Relief from arthritis
Enhanced metabolism
Help with menstrual symptoms
Headache relief
Improved kidney and liver function
Clearer skin
Enhanced wellbeing
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.

Yours sincerely

Julia Dean

Complaints Executive

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.

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5 Responses to “Detox Footbaths Make A Comeback”

  1. mrsP Says:

    That is disappointing. Not just disappointing – its an absolute disgrace. It shows how necessary the extension of the ASA’s remit to include the internet was, and how little staff they have to meet this growing need to protect people exploiting the worried well and more significantly the ill and terminally ill.

    There are people harmed by alt med, and plenty more who miss receiving genuine treatments that may alleviate their symptoms by turning to quacks and their false claims. instead.

    I wonder what the ASA would say if garages selling cars made the amount of utterly wrong claims that the alternative therapists do.

    I think a complaint the NMC is justified here as the practitioner involved claims to be NHS “approved” and does voluntary work in a hospice. I contacted the DOH too about the “approved” claim and they say they do not recommend individual therapists and referred me to the local NHS Trust. I am awaiting their reply.

  2. Nigel Thompson Says:

    Interesting that that ASA believe the detriment to be not significant. I would have thought that deluding arthritis sufferers that this ‘treatment’ could bring relief would be pretty much to the detriment. As also for those with circulatory, menstrual, liver or kidney problems. And anyhow, in the meantime a company will make substantial profits from providing a ‘service’. Roll up, roll up. Welcome to Dr Hokum’s Genuine Snake-oil Medicine Show.

  3. Scote Says:

    Hmm…what the ASA seem to be saying is that Alternative Therapists should use obscure therapies to avoid ASA scrutiny indefinitely.

  4. A Fourth Year of Steam « Letting Off Steam Says:

    […] Letting Off Steam Venting my anger at the woos « Detox Footbaths Make A Comeback […]

  5. The Advertsing Standards Authority and me | Josephine Jones Says:

    […] much lower for this therapy by comparison to others. There are examples of this approach here and here, when letters were sent out to explain that complaints against ads for colloidal silver […]

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