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ACCC takes legal action over homeopathy claims

The ACCC is taking legal action over claims homeopathic remedies are a safe and effective alternative for the prevention and treatment of whooping cough. Shutterstock/Minerva Studio

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has instituted Federal Court proceedings against a repeat offender over allegedly misleading claims on a homeopathy website.

The regulator is targeting the Homeopathy Plus website for claiming that the whooping cough vaccine is “unreliable” and “largely ineffective” in preventing whooping cough and that homeopathic remedies are a safe and effective alternative. It is also taking action against homeopath Frances Sheffield.

The action comes months after the ACCC said Homeopathy Plus had removed misleading and deceptive claims about whooping cough prevention and treatment from its website.

It follows non-compliance with retraction orders by both the Therapeutic Goods Administration Advertising Complaint Resolution Panel (CRP), the body responsible for policing the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) who administer the Therapeutic Goods Act.

“The whole exercise shows the impotence of the current complaint system handled by the CRP and TGA,” said Ken Harvey, adjunct associate professor of public health at La Trobe University.

The ACCC is seeking an injunction to have the misleading claims removed from the Homeopathy Plus website, as well as penalties against the company and individuals, however professor Harvey said he would like to see a retraction of the claims published (as sought by the CRP and TGA), to inform the public.

“When craziness like this comes up a retraction is crucial,” Professor Harvey said.

He added that the TGA should have similar powers of enforcing determinations that the ACCC has, such as civil penalties and enforceable undertakings.

Professor Harvey said it was not satisfactory to rely on the ACCC to pursue health safety cases.

“There are many things they haven’t taken up on the grounds they have more important things to do,” he said.

The fact that the ACCC has intervened in this case raises real questions about why we have the TGA, said Bruce Arnold, lecturer in law at the University of Canberra.

“The government has acknowledged there are major problems with the way the organisation is operating, but we’re not seeing much action there in terms of cultural change, which is arguably what we need.”

The information provided on the Homeopathy Plus website is covered by Australian Consumer Law (ACL) and the Therapeutic Goods Act, Mr Arnold said.

“The ACL is looked after by the ACCC. It has both the power and the culture of going after deceptive claims that are made in the course of trade.

"The TGA arguably doesn’t have that culture and has certainly given a lower priority to dealing with what some people refer to as alternative medicine,” Mr Arnold said.

Mr Arnold said the ACCC action was arguably overdue, however the regulator had the power to order a correction, which could help prevent further harm.

Homeopath Frances Sheffield said the action would be defended.

“As far as we’re concerned the information is quite accurate,” she said.

Ms Sheffield said after the ACCC ordered the removal of the ‘Whooping Cough – Homeopathic Prevention and Treatment’ page from the Homeopathy Plus website last year, the information was moved to a members only area of the site.

“It’s currently sitting in the member area and was slightly revised,” Ms Sheffield said.

Professor Harvey has consistently argued it is both irresponsible and dangerous to promote homeopathic remedies for the prevention of potentially serious infectious diseases.

The Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing recommends children receive the whooping cough vaccine as part of routine childhood immunisation.

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