Does The ASA Do More Harm Than Good?

The ASA Tries To Ban Ads For How To Stop Your Doctor Killing You (They apparently claim an anonymous doctor was upset by the book title)

Vernon Coleman

June 21st 2005

That nasty little organisation called the Advertising Standards Authority is, so I've been told by the BBC, apparently trying to stop advertisements appearing for my book How To Stop Your Doctor Killing You. I'm not surprised that the ASA would like to see the book banned. Here are a few things that not everyone seems to know about the ASA.

1) The ASA is a private organisation which cannot `ban' anything.
2) The book concerned contains an attack on the ASA and a call for it to be closed down and replaced with an accountable, statutory authority. So the ASA is now trying to ban adverts for a book attacking the ASA! This is clearly outrageous.
3) The ASA has previously refused to accept scientific references as supporting evidence. I am medically qualified and have evidence supporting all claims made in and for the book.
4) I am told that one `doctor' made a complaint about the book. Does the complaining doctor have any links to the drug industry? How much of the ASA's financing comes from drug companies? (The book includes attacks on the drug industry). No one has complained to us about the book, though it has been on sale since 1996 and is currently a global bestseller.

It seems to me that the ASA is again trying to ban the truth - and this time to protect itself. I certainly think that the ASA does very little good, and a great deal of harm.

It is the ASA itself which should be banned.

If the ASA succeeds in banning the book (which we doubt) we will take legal action against them.

Here, for the record are the last letters I sent to the ASA.

Letter No 1

To Konrad Obiora, ASA
Dear Mr Obiora,
1. The claim made in the paragraph at the top of the advertisement (in quotation marks) is patently true and indisputable. It is impossible to give precise figures for the number of patients killed by doctors but I don't think anyone now disputes the fact that doctors are one of the four big killers (alongside cancer, stroke and heart disease). My book How To Stop Your Doctor Killing You reports that according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, adverse drug reactions alone are now between the fourth and sixth leading causes of death in the USA. The number of people killed by burglars, muggers, motorists etc is minute by comparison.
2. The book has been advertised (with the same title) for nine years. It is sold around the world (from South America to China). This is the first time anyone has complained about it.
3. The book is designed to protect vulnerable people. Anyone who reads it will realise that. I note that at least one of your alleged complaints comes from a medical practitioner. Is he or she in practice? Can he or she be considered to have a professional interest in suppressing the book? Does he or she have any links with the drug industry? The book has been widely praised (by, among others, medical practitioners).
4. The book contains criticism of the ASA. It would obviously be improper for the ASA to make any comment about the book, or advertisements for it. In the book I recommend that the ASA be disbanded.
5. I write and publish as a private individual. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act gives me the right to hold opinions and express my views. (According to the Act this applies `even if they are unpopular or disturbing').
6. How much funding does the ASA receive from the drug industry via ASBOF? Do any of the ASA council members have any links with the pharmaceutical industry? I would welcome the opportunity to discuss the independence and reputation of the ASA.
7. I do not believe that the ASA (you will not be surprised to hear that I do not contribute to ASBOF) has the right to restrain my trade or my earning a living. My books are honest and helpful and I can produce many thousands of letters from readers who also believe that. I have in today's post (for example) received two letters from readers saying that How To Stop Your Doctor Killing You has saved their lives.
If the ASA makes any attempt to restrict advertisements for this book I will use whatever legal methods (including the Human Rights Act) may be necessary to defend my rights as an individual author and publisher.
Yours sincerely

Vernon Coleman MB ChB DSc

Would You Like To Help Strike A Blow For A Free Press?
What a coincidence it is that every book of mine that criticises the drug industry and/or the food industry has been banned by the ASA (as have adverts pointing out that vivisection is unscientific). Books so far banned include: Food For Thought, Betrayal of Trust, Power Over Cancer, Fighting for Animals and, now, How To Stop Your Doctor Killing You.

If you think the ASA is wrong to try to ban ads for books which tell the truth (even though they upset large, powerful international industries) please write to them and let them know what you think.

Send and e-mail to:
Send a fax to Advertising Standards Authority, + 44 (0) 207 242 3696

Letter No 2

Dear Mr Obiora,
Gosh. Well, what a surprise that was. The ASA defending the medical establishment and the international pharmaceutical industry (both of which are, I would have thought, perfectly capable of looking after themselves) and ignoring the rights and needs of the poor old patient.
Just a few points which I think you should pass on to your council:
1. We have a letter from the ASA informing us that the ASA does not accept scientific references. We did offer you references. But you didn't say you wanted them. You now say that we didn't send any evidence to substantiate our claim. You did this once before and I am beginning to find it tiresome. (The previous occasion involved an attempt to ban a book pointing out that there is a link between food and disease. Standing alone in the world except for the undoubted support of a number of large, international food companies, the ASA argued that there is no evidence linking food and disease.) Does it not strike you as just a teeny weeny bit unreasonable to refuse to accept references and to then uphold an alleged complaint on the grounds that we didn't send any? We invited you to say if you wanted references. We didn't hear from you. We assumed we didn't hear from you because you have in the past refused to accept them.
2. I don't know of any court of law, except perhaps those in Zimbabwe, where accusers are allowed to remain anonymous when their actions threaten the ability of the accused to earn a living. In fact I have to confess that I don't believe your secret letter writer exists at all. I think the ASA is trying to suppress this book because it contains a criticism of the ASA. Can you produce any evidence to convince me otherwise? If there are any complainants what efforts have you made to find out whether or not they have links with the drug industry?) The specific advert your alleged secret informer didn't like has been running since 1996 and we decided a little while ago that it was due for retirement. I believe that you are breaking the law in trying to stop me advertising my book. (Check out the Human Rights Act which gives me the right, as an individual, to express my views about doctors and drug companies unhindered.) It seems perfectly appropriate to me that the ASA should expend its resources on attempting to ban an advert which has been appearing for nine years and for which there are no future plans.
3. I notice that although you took weeks to reply to my last letter you have now announced that we have five working days from the date on your letter to reply to your letter dated 6th May and received at Publishing House on 10th May. That means that we have one day to write a reply and get it to you. Once again, this is a breach of the Human Rights Act. (This time, check out Article 6. If we were planning to use this advert again the ASA would be threatening to remove my livelihood. A serious threat. I believe a court would find in our favour on this point too.
4. Sorry to be pedantic but you can't `tell' us not to repeat things because you have absolutely no authority over us or anyone else. You can `ask' or `advise' or `beg'. But you can't `tell' me to do anything. You really must remember that you are working for a private company. You aren't even a quango for heaven's sake.
5. You are free to publish and distribute any criticism you like as long as it is not defamatory. (I note that although you have announced that you intend to publish your views you are trying to stop me publishing my views. Do you not see the irony in that?). I intend to publish and distribute a defence and a criticism of the way the ASA has reached its conclusion. I will point out that the ASA has a vested interest in banning this book and has in our view breached the Human Rights Act. I will point out that the ASA has refused to provide any evidence that it has ever received a complaint from any member of the public about this book and that it is my view that the ASA may be simply trying to suppress a book which it finds embarrassing (and which embarrasses some of the larger contributors to the ASBOF fund). I will point out that you have refused to say how much money the ASA receives from drug companies through the ASBOF levy. I find it difficult to believe that the ASA is unaware of the size of different advertisers. It is, I believe, also relevant to point out that you know that I refuse to pay the voluntary ASBOF levy and am, therefore, not a financial contributor to the ASA. Could it possibly be that the ASA is determined to protect its contributors at the expense of those who refuse to contribute?
6. I note that although you ask me to treat your draft recommendation as confidential until you are ready for it to be made public you have not followed this request yourself. You have, you say, already distributed copies of the draft to the alleged complainants. (If any exist, of course.)
7. I believe the ASA attempts to suppress the truth in the defence of the pharmaceutical industry and ignores principles of justice in so doing. (Your claim that we have not provided evidence when you have previously refused to accept references is a perfect example of this. We wrote on April 22nd stating our willingness to provide references but you did not respond.) I will check out the members of your council to see if any of them have (or have had) any links with the pharmaceutical industry. (I remember a previous occasion when an ASA council which ruled against an advert for a book opposing vivisection included a member with a vested interest in defending vivisection. The ASA thought there was nothing wrong with that. Most other people did not seem to share their view.)
I now have enough material for a new chapter about the ASA in my next book. Thank you for your help. This correspondence is now closed.
Yours sincerely

Dr Vernon Coleman

Letter No 3

To Konrad Obiora, ASA
From Vernon Coleman
Dear Mr Obiora,
Although I ended my last letter by pointing out that I considered our correspondence closed, I did not, perhaps, make it clear that I have no intention of engaging in any further correspondence with the ASA. For the reasons I have already given, I regard the ASA as an organisation for which I find it impossible to feel any respect. Your recent `ruling' was grotesquely unfair.
If I find that any action by the ASA has resulted in my being unable to buy advertising, or has resulted in any financial loss, I will take whatever legal action may be appropriate to protect my business and recover any losses.
Yours sincerely

Dr Vernon Coleman

To Office of Fair Trading

Dear Sirs,
I wish to make a formal complaint about the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). This week the ASA banned an advertisement for one of my books, How To Stop Your Doctor Killing You which first appeared in 1996 and which has been advertised around the world since then. The ASA announced the ban despite the fact that the book contains an attack on the ASA. The ASA knew about this attack before they banned the book. If a Judge was hearing a case which involved him personally, he would withdraw. The ASA simply went ahead and banned ads for the book.

We have received many letters praising the book. The ASA claim that they have one complaint from a doctor but they will not say whether or not the alleged complainant is linked in any way to the drugs industry (which the book also attacks).

This seems to us to be an unfair attempt to stop us trading fairly and to stop us promoting a book which has been widely praised by readers (including many doctors). We also believe that the ASA's action are in breach of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.

We hope that you will investigate this complaint fully.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Vernon Coleman MB ChB DSc

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2005 (21 June 2005)