Principle Healthcare and Layscience.net
I bumped into the excellent Martin Robbins last night, which reminded me that I’d been meaning to blog about the highly dubious libel threats made against Martin’s website, www.layscience.net by a company called Principle Healthcare.
In many countries, private companies are prevented from sueing anyone for libel – the basic principle being that the right to be protected against unfounded attacks on one’s reputation is a human right, and extending human rights to abstract organisational entitites debases the whole concept. A company doesn’t have the right to get married, seek asylum or enjoy state-sponsored education, after all. Government bodies don’t have the right to sue for libel, and the sky hasn’t fallen in for them. It seems worth asking whether it really makes sense for companies to use up valuable court time on their “right” to an unblemished reputation.
More concretely, while a vicious and unfounded smear campaign can cause very real psychological harm to a person (in my view the most compelling argument for having a libel law in the first place), a company does not have a mind and therefore cannot be psychologically harmed.
The other very obvious problem is that companies tend to have far more resources at their disposal than most individuals do, so when a company tries to sue an individual, in many cases there will be an enormous “inequality of arms”.
So I was very disappointed when I heard yet another example of a company throwing its weight around by threatening a blogger with libel.
On March 11th, I received a letter from some lawyers in Yorkshire. Who they are doesn’t really matter, they’re just one of many provincial firms of solicitors in the UK. They were engaged by Principle Healthcare, a firm selling vitamin pills, motto: “Our reputation is your insurance.”
Unfortunately for Principle Healthcare’s reputation, another blogger and regular guest writer on The Lay Scientist, James Cole, spotted some claims on their website one day that seemed to be a bit dodgy. He decided to do some investigating, and he reported his findings to the MHRA, and to Trading Standards.
They weren’t very pleased with Principle Healthcare. The MHRA said:
“We do regard these to be inappropriate medicinal claims.”
While Trading Standards said:
“In respect to the apple cider vinegar product, I have and advised (sic) the company to remove these claims.”
Three months later, some of the claims were still there, and a gentleman from Trading Standards e-mailed James again to explain:
“I have once again contacted the company with regard to this matter and await the amendment of the website.”
James also wrote about his findings, and his communications with the MHRA and Trading Standards, on both his own blog, and layscience.net.
This all happened a few months ago, and such is the transient nature of the blogosphere that as of last week the story was long-forgotten to all but the officials still pestering Principle Healthcare to remove the claims in question.
And then, as I mentioned, I received a letter.
It read as follows (I’ve edited it only very slightly, to remove some personal details):
Our Client: Principle Healthcare Limited
We act for the above named Company, a Company registered in England and Wales with Company Registration No. 4283476. The Company is involved in the sale of vitamins, minerals and other supplements.
It has come to our Client’s knowledge that James Cole is posting defamatory statements against our Client on the website layscience.net. The defamatory statements are included in the following blogs:-
The defamatory statements that James Cole is making include calling our Client’s professionalism into question; posting negative comments about its products; and making false accusations about its business practices and ethos.
Our Client’s reputation is of the utmost importance to it. Therefore we require the disabling of the relevant blogs. We look forward to hearing from you within 7 days with your confirmation that you have carried this out.
If you fail to take the required action within 7 days, we will have no option but to instruct a U.S. attorney to take appropriate action against you.
We look forward to hearing from you.
[A law firm in Yorkshire]
I don’t think this is really on, so I’ve decided to reproduce both blog posts in their entirety here. I believe they both constitute fair comment in the public interest, and that there is really no justification here for the kind of threats that have been made.
Alternative Medicine and a Failure of Regulation
Back in July, I wrote three blog posts about claims made on the website of a food supplement manufacturer. As well as writing about their claims, I contacted the MHRA and Trading Standards.
The first post pointed out that the firm were selling industrially-produced herbal remedies and making medicinal claims for them. I wrote to the MHRA, linking to the relevant page, and enquired as to whether the claims made were acceptable. I got the following response:
Thank you for your e-mail and for bring this matter to our attention. We do regard these to be inappropriate medicinal claims.
Despite the MHRA regarding the claims made by Principle Healthcare in promoting their herbal remedies to be “inappropriate medicinal claims”, they still appear on the Principle Healthcare website.
I contacted the Office of Fair Trading regarding the alleged breaches of the former regulations, who advised me to contact the Advertising Standards Authority. The problem with that suggestion is that material on a business’s website does not come under the jurisdiction of the ASA.
I also made contact (regarding the alleged breaches of the latter regulations) with the relevant branch of Trading Standards. North Yorkshire Trading Standards have yet to respond to my email – which was sent four months ago.
Rather than waste time chasing up regulatory bodies who have either (a)(b) failed to even respond to my complaint, I thought it might be worth contacting my MP. referred me to another regulatory body that does not have the power to investigate the alleged breaches or
Before doing so I will, out of courtesy, contact the regulatory bodies once more and see if they are willing to actually take some kind of action against the firm in question. Even if it is just to request they remove the offending material from their website.
Wish me luck.
Edit, 15th November: there is now a follow-up post here.
From “Stuff and Nonsense”
July 3, 2009 at 9:17 pm
Following on from my previous post about vitamin pill entrepreneurs Principle Healthcare, I bring you details of a letter I wrote to the authorities regarding the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Some of the claims made on the website I have been investigating are staggering.#
One claim I noted was that for those finding it difficult to focus on a task: “unless you’re taking fish oil supplements or you’re eating an extraordinary amount of fatty fish, chances are those levels [of Omega 3] were too low”.
This is a remarkable claim to make – it implies that maintaining adequate levels of Omega 3 fatty acids requires a very large intake that is only achievable by shovelling down masses of oily fish or popping fish oil pills. One wonders how vegetarians cope… [Incidentally, there are about 220 million strict vegetarians in India, according to the Anthropological Survey of India. I wonder if they are all deficient in Omega 3 fatty acids and have difficulty focussing on tasks?]
As far as I am aware, the only decent trials that have been conducted into Omega 3 fatty acids and mental performance have been in children with DCD or ADHD. As Ben Goldacre wrote in September 2007: “Even now, for all this pretending, there still has never been a single controlled trial, even a cheap one, of omega-3 fish oil supplements in normal children.” [http://www.badscience.net/2007/09/the-fishy-reckoning/]
Another was this: glucose tablets are, apparently, “A must for those with hectic busy schedules”. Really? Sugar pills are essential for those with hectic schedules? This sort of stuff beggars belief. There’s plenty more where that came from.
According to Principle Healthcare, Coenzyme Q10 is of benefit “to those exposed to pollution and stressful lifestyles” because it is an antioxidant. Are antioxidants now a cure for stressful lifestyles? That sounds frankly bizarre to me.
Then there’s the assertion that homocysteine increases our risk of a problem with the circulatory system. I’m not sure whether there is any decent evidence to back up this assertion, but when I searched Pubmed for up to date evidence relating to homocysteine and the circulatory system I found only one paper with a link to free full text published in the last year. The conclusions of this paper did not seem to me to support the assertion made by the vitamin B pills salesmen. There is more on homocysteine as a surrogate endpoint below.*
As for Apple Cider Vinegar, well it almost sounds like a panacea. It “helps curb appetite, is a gentle detoxification agent, absorbs and blocks fat formation, boosts the immune system and supplies amino acids, minerals and vitamins”.
There’s a little bit more on ACV here: old blog post, please don’t laugh at my amateurish early efforts at blogging.
[Amendment: the text of the letter I wrote has been removed from this section.]
David Colquhoun discusses the Unfair Trading Regulations here. His post on whether most alternative medicine is illegal includes links to the relevant pieces of legislation.
*Homocysteine: is it a modifiable causal risk factor for vascular disease or simply a marker of risk burden? This is part of the background to this recent paper which found that “long-term homocysteine-lowering treatment with B-vitamins does not significantly reduce CIMT or increase FMD in people with a history of stroke” and that “the modest increase in FMD associated with short-term B-vitamin treatment does not appear to be translated into improved vascular structure or sustained in the longer term”.
As the authors state in the abstract, “long-term homocysteine-lowering did not significantly improve FMD or CIMT in people with a history of stroke” (CIMT is carotid intima-medial thickness and FMD stands for flow-mediated dilation).
A slightly older paper, meanwhile, concluded that “adjusting for renal function not only eliminates the relationship between tHcy and markers of vascular risk in subjects with proven cerebrovascular disease” and that “Our data are thus consistent with the hypothesis that mild renal impairment is an independent risk factor for vascular disease and elevated tHcy simply a marker for reduced GFR. The underlying relationship between tHcy and renal function is not altered by long-term B-vitamin supplementation and it is possible that, by treating homocysteine, we may be shooting the messenger rather than attacking the true risk factor.” [http://atvb.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/28/6/1158]
A study that looked at biomarkers for PAD (Peripheral Arterial Disease) development in women did not find significant associations for homocysteine and other biomarkers. The authors “found the proinflammatory cellular adhesion molecule sICAM-1 to be the strongest predictor of confirmed clinical events” and noted three other biomarkers that were significant and one that was borderline significant. [http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/117/6/823]
I’m not expert in medical matters (as you will probably have noted if you’ve read this blog before) but it seems to me that homocysteine could well be a false surrogate endpoint.