Advertising Acupuncture Services

Many people express surprise that despite being able to use acupuncture to treat a range of conditions, Acupuncturists are not allowed to mention most of the work that they do in their advertising. In fact just using the word ‘treatment’ can lead to problems if it is used in a context that implies a guaranteed result. This is due, in part, to previous rulings by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). Their position is that they wish to uphold the highest standards in advertising and as such they oversee all that goes on in print and broadcast media, including the internet.

Most Acupuncturists for example will happily provide treatment for someone wishing to give up smoking, or lose weight, and in a number of instances they are successful in helping that individual to quit. Of course, for every success story there will be failures, much as there is with conventional or ‘Western’ medicine.  For example not everyone who uses patches to stop smoking achieves their aim.

To be able to make claims in advertising that Acupuncture actually works there needs to be empirical clinical evidence to support those claims.  This cannot be simply a patient who was treated and then got better, as there is no control which says that they may have got better without any intervention at all. Today’s environment requires double blind clinical trials against substitutes and placebos to really stand a chance of being accepted, and even then, to be accepted there would have to be a statistically valid improvement in the results from acupuncture over other treatments for it to be accepted as effective.

All of which means that despite the thousands of years of use, and millions of people who have been treated, unless you can prove it works through clinical trials you cannot say it in your advertising.

There are a number of bodies who are trying to redress this balance including the British Acupuncture Council but the progress is slow. Until there is sufficient clinical research and agreement from the regulatory bodies then acupuncturists will simply have to content themselves with telling you how nice their premises are and how long they have been practising. In the meantime we will maintain our stance the acupuncture from Acupuncture That Works can be ‘an aid’ to better living.

To illustrate the current degree of regulation we are reproducing the full guidance from the CAP site (which you need to register and log in to read) but to save you the bother we’re posting it here…… You can decide for yourself if this is reasonable, proportionate and realistic in today’s environment.

Therapies: Acupuncture

Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.

This section should be read in conjunction with the entry on ‘Therapies, General’.

Acupuncture is the insertion of needles into the skin and underlying tissues in key ‘points’ for therapeutic or preventative purposes. The stimulation of certain “trigger points” – probably nerve fibres or receptors – with needles, electrical impulses or lasers is thought to induce rhythmic discharges that cause a release of endogenous opioids and oxytocin. Other theories have been put forward to explain acupuncture’s apparent success at relieving menopausal hot flushes and sweats and reducing skin-flap necrosis in reconstructive surgery.

CAP understands that no statutory regulation exists for acupuncture practitioners and they should not claim to be able to treat serious or prolonged conditions (Rule 12.2). Marketers of acupuncture are advised to encourage consumers to take independent medical advice (Rule 12.3).

CAP is unlikely to accept claims that acupuncture can treat tinnitus or can control appetite. Although commonly claimed, we have not seen evidence that acupuncture can either help quit smoking or aid weight loss (Chinese Medicine Centre, 14 January 2004). And CAP has not seen evidence that acupuncture can “de-tox” the body, improve blood circulation, increase metabolism or boost energy.

Marketers occasionally claim that acupuncture can help delay or prevent ageing. To date, neither CAP nor the ASA has seen evidence that acupuncture can slow down, reverse or even relieve the superficial signs of ageing. CAP, therefore, advises marketers not to make claims relating to the improvement of the appearance of skin conditions (scarring as well as the signs of ageing).

Acupuncture practitioners may, however, claim they can help treat dental pain, nausea and vomiting, provide short-term relief of tension-type headache, migraine headache relief, temporary or short term relief of low back pain and provide temporary adjunctive treatment for osteoarthritis knee pain (the latter must include the stated caveats). Practitioners may be asked to supply evidence for the efficacy of their treatment in the event of an ASA challenge (Herbmedic, 22 October 2003 (complaint 4)).

At the time of writing, scientific studies seemed inconclusive for some conditions and marketers are advised not to advertise acupuncture for them unless they have robust evidence to support efficacy. Those conditions include addictions, asthma, headaches, feeling blue, certain types of facial pain, trouble sleeping, lateral elbow pain, shoulder pain, and neck pain. It might be possible, however, to speak about the purely sensory effects of acupuncture and make claims about well-being and well-feeling or to use phrases such as “feel revitalised”, “more positive” or “relaxed”.

Evidence is almost certainly going to have to include placebo-controlled trials on humans and back in 1998 the Lancet suggested that a placebo acupuncture needle (which pricks the skin without penetrating it) might be suitable for use in such trials.

Neither CAP nor the ASA accepts that hand-held acupuncture and acupressure devices work (Dove Alliance UK Ltd, December 1999