An online homeopathy store has been fined more than $100,000 after the Federal Court found it had made misleading representations about the effectiveness of whooping cough vaccinations and homeopathic alternatives to the vaccine.
Federal Court Justice Melissa Perry fined Homeopathy Plus! and its director Frances Sheffield $115,000 and $23,000 respectively after finding the business had breached Australian Consumer Law in a ruling handed down in December 2014.
The case involved a series of articles that were first published on the business’s website in 2012 that claimed whooping cough vaccine is “unreliable at best” and “largely ineffective” in preventing the condition, and that homeopathic remedies are a proven safe and effective alternative.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission ordered the articles be removed in April 2012, however Homeopathy Plus! reinstated the material in January 2013, which prompted the consumer watchdog to initiate legal proceedings.
In addition to the hefty fines, Perry has order the company to pull existing articles, stop publishing articles and be restrained from making references to whooping cough-related claims for a period of five years.
ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court said in a statement the potential consequences of making such statements were “extremely serious”.
“In this case, there was a real risk that consumers might be influenced by the representations not to use the whooping cough vaccine and instead to rely solely on homeopathic products for the prevention of whooping cough,” she said.
“This is against the advice of medical professionals and the Commonwealth Department of Health.”
Court said the onus is on businesses to make sure any statement or representation made about the effectiveness of a particular product is “accurate and supported by adequate scientific evidence”.
“It is no excuse that the person making false or misleading representations genuinely believes in a particular viewpoint and is a passionate advocate for a particular practice,” she said.
Alistair Little, partner at TressCox Lawyers, told SmartCompany this morning the heavy penalties handed down by the judge reflect concerns that such claims might encourage people not to take the current vaccine, exposing them to risk of contracting whooping cough.
Little says the judgment appears to have taken particular note of the public health issue arising from people not having immunity to whooping cough, which is a highly contagious disease.
“The public health issue seems to be the driving force behind the high penalties,” he says.
“I think there’s a particular risk for any business wishing to make claims regarding products that might have an impact on public health.
“Whether negative comments about existing treatments such as vaccines or positive claims about products that you sell, if there might be an impact on public health, that’s something the courts and ACCC will take dim view of.”
Little says the real message for other businesses is to not make claims about the efficacy of certain products or treatments “unless you have scientific proof”.
“You really should not make claims regarding health… in the absence of strong scientific evidence to support those claims. In absence of scientific proof, don’t make the claims,” he says.
Little says the ACCC has been determined to crack down on these sorts of claims in recent years, especially with regards to various weight-loss products and slimming teas.
SmartCompany contacted Homeopathy Plus but did not receive a response prior to publication.
SmartCompany was unable to contact with Frances Sheffield prior to publication.