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Trust me, I'm a doctor

27th July 2004

Family Healthcare magazine Apparent endorsement by health advocates such as Dr Hilary Jones and the NHS are being used to persuade the public to believe the health claims made by advertisers, writes Kath Dalmeny.

Claiming that food products can reduce the risk of disease or positively contribute to health is a risky area for advertisers. Unsubstantiated claims can result in censure from trading standards officials, adverse media coverage and, perhaps most damaging of all, increased scepticism among their customers.

What better way to convince us of the validity of health claims than to use an independent and trusted organisation or individual to give their apparent endorsement to the product?

Information has been sent to us about two healthcare publications, destined for circulation to millions of people in the UK. One is fronted by GMTV's Dr. Hilary Jones. The other is a directory of NHS medical services. Both publications interweave health advice and advertising.

The Family Healthcare magazine is riddled with adverts for pharmaceuticals, food supplements and food products. Some of the food marketing is in the form of 'advertorial' - features designed to look like an independent and unbiased assessment of a product, yet written by industry representatives aiming to portray the product in the best possible light.

nhs Family Choice also offers promotional opportunities to pharmaceutical companies and food advertisers. nhs Family Choice is a new directory of medical treatment providers, due to be distributed by the NHS via Primary Health Care Teams across the UK this summer. It will be published in response to Health Secretary John Reid's call for patients to have more choice in their medical care

NHS Family Choice Magazine chooses PopzoneThe directory is published independently of the NHS and is a commercial venture that mingles information provision with advertising and advertorial. A marketing brochure circulated by Hall & Woodhouse, makers of Panda Pops, reveals the type of advertiser keen to associate itself with the NHS name.

The proposed advertorial portrays Panda Pops as low in sugar and low in additives, and therefore a healthier choice for children. [Editor's note: Cyworks, publishers of nhs Family Choice, told us that they were unaware of the content and circulation of this advertorial by Hall & Woodhouse. See also note below.]

Some Panda Pops products are indeed low in sugar, but others are not - and some contain the very additives identified by a recent government study as triggering behavioural problems in toddlers, including sodium benzoate and the red food colouring carmoisine (see Food Magazine 66, page 3).

Hall & Woodhouse goes further, implying that 'senior NHS staff' approved the advertorial. This is especially worrying since the advertorial contains a table showing Panda Pops as a healthier choice than fruit juice. At a time when an NHS priority is to promote the consumption of fruit and vegetables through the five-a-day programme, this is a highly unlikely message for the NHS to endorse. Yet Panda Pops sought to gain commercial advantage by boasting in advertising to caterers about its apparent link to the NHS.

When we spoke to the publisher of nhs Family Choice, Cyworks plc, they said that the NHS is not involved with the publication of the magazine, and stated that they feel that families who receive this publication would not think that the health messages came from the real NHS because the real NHS logo uses upper-case letters, unlike nhs Family Choice. The directory also contains a disclaimer.

The Food Commission has duly submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) against Hall & Woodhouse for seeking to give the impression that its 'health message' was endorsed by the NHS. We have also expressed concern to the ASA about food advertising and food advertorial being distributed to families via the NHS without this material being cleared by NHS health-promotion staff.

Family Healthcare magazine 'with Dr. Hilary Jones' is another magazine that demonstrates how a trusted health advocate can be used to convince readers of the benefits of products. Family Healthcare is distributed through high-street newsagents and bookshops, costing £3.50. Over one third of the magazine (117 of the 290 pages) is advertising, with several features that also appear to be advertising material, although they are not declared as such.

In the introduction, Dr. Hilary Jones states that 'the prognosis for the NHS is bleak and consequently it will become ever more vital for us all to take more responsibility for our own health. Ultimately, each one of us will in a way need to become amateur doctors in our own right.' The perfect cue for features and advertising encouraging self-diagnosis and self-medication by means of pharmaceuticals, herbal remedies, vitamin pills and functional foods.

At least 25 advertising pages are devoted to self-medication by means of food products, including: Warburton's bread with added omega 3 fat to 'aid brain development in unborn children'; Scottish Salmon to help with 'reducing the chances of developing coronary heart disease'; Columbus Eggs, to 'keep joints supple and prevent injury'; Müller Probiotic yogurt 'helping to balance your entire digestive system'; and the Tea Council stating that consuming tea 'may have a role in protecting against certain diseases such as cancer, stroke and heart disease'.

Dr. Samantha Stear, Science Director for the Sugar BureauOne particular feature caught our eye: 'Smiles to be proud of', written by Dr. Samantha Stear and investigating dental health. The article contains many familiar industry defences for sugar consumption, and focuses on personal responsibility in dental care rather than dietary changes to combat dental decay. Who would advocate such an approach?

Our suspicions were triggered by an advert for the industry's Sugar Bureau, conveniently placed in the midst of the article, promoting the health benefits of sugar. So who is this author? Who is the seemingly independent Dr. Samantha Stear? None other than Science Director for the Sugar Bureau. A fact that the article fails to mention.

Editor's note: Cyworks, publishers of nhs Family Choice asked us to point out that it did not approve the Panda Pops advertorial, that the advertorial has not been published in the directory, and that Cyworks has contacted the manufacturer to request that advertising material relating to this advertorial should no longer be distributed.
However, a subsequent investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority (prompted by a complaint from the Food Commission) found that: "The advertisers said they had been approached by the publishers of that magazine, who believed the Popzone range of soft drinks would be suitable to include in the magazine. The advertisers said they were invited to run an advertisement feature in the publication."
"The advertisers explained that, following approval of their advertisement feature for nhs Family Choice magazine, they decided to use it in a leaflet; they said they sought permission from the publishers, who also gave them permission to use the nhs Family Choice logo in the leaflet and sent copies of correspondence between them and the publishers to show that."

For full details of the ASA evidence and ruling, see:
http://www.asa.org.uk/asa/adjudications/Adjudication+Details.htm?adjudication_id=39472