The public is exposed to a seemingly endless variety of commercial propaganda and if the susceptible and the naive are to be protected from exploitation the country needs a strong, independent watch-dog capable of providing protection for innocent consumers from the most misleading and manipulative advertisers.

But is the Advertising Standards Authority the watch-dog the country wants and needs?

In 1994 the Research Defence Society (an organisation which defends the use of animals in experiments) made a number of complaints to the ASA about two leaflets produced by Plan 2000 - an anti-vivisection group which I founded. The ASA upheld most of the complaints.

I believe that when an organisation like the ASA makes judgements on controversial issues like animal experimentation it must be clearly and publicly seen to be totally and unquestionably impartial.

One of the ASA's Council members when it upheld the complaint was Richard Bradley, vice chairman of L'Oreal (UK) Ltd, and vice chairman of the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfumery Association. The cosmetics industry does a lot of animal experiments.

I asked the ASA whether Mr Bradley or the ASA felt that there was any conflict between his presence on the ASA Council and ASA adjudication following complaints relating to the use of animals in experiments.

The Director General of the ASA refused to answer my question.

She said: 'We do not disclose the position taken by individual members of Council during meetings. You can be assured, however, that members of Council declare any interest that they have before an adjudication is made, and where necessary they withdraw from the discussion.'

When Paul Flynn MP, a member of Plan 2000, wrote about this issue to the ASA he received a reply from the chairman, the Rt Hon Lord Rodgers of Quarrybank.

Lord Rogers said: 'The decisions of Council are, of course, collegiate. I mean by this that they are decisions of Council as a whole. For this reason it would be quite wrong to refer to the views of any individual member. The principle, as you will appreciate, is exactly the same as applies to the Cabinet.'

Using the Cabinet as a comparison, although impressively grandiose, does not seem to me to be a particularly suitable analogy. Surely the ASA Council would be better compared to a jury?

Moreover, I found it odd that the ASA, a private body which claims to safeguard the public and which insists that advertisers prove their claims, should be reluctant to give a more specific answer to such an important question.

Eventually, the ASA said: 'There are only two reasons why a council member would withdraw. Firstly, if the decision would affect his own company, and secondly, if the decision would affect a direct competitor. Neither circumstance applied in this instance, so Mr Bradley sat on the panel as normal.'

My feeling is that because Mr Bradley did not withdraw, some of those who passionately oppose the use of animals in experiments may feel that they - and the animals whose interests they represent - have not received a 'fair deal'. Are not Plan 2000 and the cosmetics industry competitors?

* * *

In June 1995 the small publishing house I run received a letter telling us that someone had complained about an advertisement for my book 'Food for Thought'.

The unnamed complainant disputed the claim: 'Between a third and a half of all cancers may be caused by eating the wrong foods. In his bestselling book 'Food for Thought' Dr Vernon explains which foods to avoid - and which to eat to reduce your risk of developing cancer.'

The complaint seemed easy to deal with.

After all many books, official reports and scientific papers have linked food and cancer. The United States Surgeon General has published a report suggesting that diet could be responsible for up to 70% of all cancers.

The National Research Council in the United States of America published a technical report entitled 'Diet, Nutrition and Cancer' which showed that diet was probably the single most important factor in the development of cancer, and that there was evidence linking cancers of the breast, colon and prostate to particular foods or types of food. This publication reported that there were at least six international studies which showed a direct association between the amount of fat eaten and breast cancer incidence or mortality.

In order to support our claim that it is possible to reduce the risk of developing cancer by avoiding some foods and eating others we submitted a short but impressive list of basic references - referring to both books and scientific papers - and offered to provide a longer list if this was considered necessary.

But this time we hit another snag.

The ASA would not accept references.

They had, they said, read the list of references. 'But', they added, 'this list in itself does not constitute evidence.'

We could not send original documents because much of the material had been obtained on loan from libraries and a telephone call to the Department of Trade and Industry confirmed our suspicion that it would be illegal (a breach of The Copyright, Designs and Patent Act of 1988) for us to provide the ASA with photocopies of all the books and scientific papers involved.

The ASA remained unmoved, simply insisting that: 'it is an advertiser's responsibility to submit all such evidence as is necessary to support their claims'.

As a health writer who has spent 25 years fighting to reveal the truth about medicine and health matters I believe that it is vitally important to teach the public about the links between food and cancer.

But in February 1996 the ASA confirmed that they had recommended to their Council that the complaint about 'Food for Thought' be upheld.

When I heard their conclusions I was sad, frustrated and angry. But not surprised.

However, in view of recent additional published evidence warning of the link between meat and cancer maybe the Advertising Standards Authority would now like to offer me an apology.

And maybe they would like to offer an apology to anyone who may have developed cancer in the last year or two - but who might now still be in good health if I had been allowed to continue to spread wider still the truth about the link between meat and cancer.

In November 1998 C.A.Ling, the Managing Director of Plamil Foods (which specialises in the manufacture of vegan foods), sent me a reply which had been received from the Advertising Standards Authority. Ling had complained about an advertisement by the British Meat Nutrition Education Service and the Advertising Standards Authority had written back saying: 'We consider readers will generally be aware that vegans and vegetarians have to take extra care with their diet to ensure they obtain the correct nutrients'. In my view this is a total nonsense and is the sort of myth which the meat trade is keen to perpetuate.

Some people who campaign for animals are beginning to question the Advertising Standards Authority's impartiality. The winter 1998 edition of the Plan 2000 Newsletter had a small item about the Advertising Standards Authority headlined 'Advertising Double Standards'. Pro animal campaigners have pointed out that complaints made by animal abusers about pro animal campaigners are frequently upheld while many complaints made by animal campaigners about animal abusers seem to be rejected.

In the summer 1998 edition of 'Outrage', the journal of campaigning group Animal Aid, Andrew Tyler pointed out that: 'In recent months the Authority has ruled against ads by the Vegetarian Society (twice), the anti-vivisection group Uncaged; the League Against Cruel Sports; and Respect for Animals. By contrast, it has rejected complaints by animal welfare interests and ruled in favour of the pro-hunt Countryside Alliance, the National Farmers' Union and Anchor's 'free range butter' ad.'

Tyler reported how Animal Aid had 'grappled long and frustratingly' with the Advertising Standards Authority 'following a complaint put to it by the Meat and Livestock Commission over our recent Veggie Month advertising poster. The poster bore the slogan 'Meat Kills - Just Say No!' It then elaborated with the message '850 million animals slaughtered in the UK every year'. The plain, simple truth.'

But Tyler went on 'the ASA upheld the meat trade's complaint on the grounds that the poster was 'simplistic and misleading and therefore caused unnecessary fear and distress'.

'So,' he wrote, 'here we are again being obstructed from saying the unsayable in a society that finds the mass slaughter of animals acceptable and explicit objection to such carnage as objectionable.'

The fact is that I don't believe the Advertising Standards Authority is the watch-dog the country wants and needs. I believe we would be much better off with an independent but statutory body with real authority and real responsibility.

Meanwhile, those who buy advertising might like to know that the Advertising Standards Authority is supported financially by advertisers themselves.

The ASA receives money which is raised through the ASBOF levy - usually added automatically to the bottom line of every advertising bill.

The ASBOF levy is entirely voluntary. Advertisers don't have to pay it. Any advertiser who does not want to support the ASA (for any reason) should simply tell their advertising agent NOT to add the ASBOF levy to their advertising bills.

We buy up to £500,000 worth of advertising every year. But I am delighted to say that we don't pay a penny towards the upkeep of the ASA.

Copyright ©Vernon Coleman 1998