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 Health: 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.
CAP understands that no compulsory regulation exists for acupuncture practitioners and the ASA is yet to consider whether, for those practitioners who are registered with an appropriately accredited body, they are likely to be considered to be suitably qualified for the purposes of the Code (Rule 12.2). Therefore, CAP advises that marketers should not claim to treat (or discourage essential medical treatment for) any conditions for which medical supervision should be sought (Attilio D'Alberto and Virtual Tapestry Ltd, 22 May 2013). However, where practitioners are registered with a body that has appropriate accreditation in place, such as that provided by the Professional Standards Authority Voluntary Register Scheme, it seems likely that the ASA will consider such credentials to be appropriate evidence of suitable qualification. This does not absolve marketers of their obligation to hold robust evidence to support efficacy claims.
The ASA investigated a complaint about two leaflets which made efficacy claims for Traditional Chinese Acupuncture and Group Acupuncture. It stated “Some of the conditions we treat include: - Women's health, including disturbances of the menstrual cycle, gynaecological disorders - Men's health, including prostatitis, urinary disorders, fertility - Emotional issues, stress, anxiety, depression, addictions - Headaches, migraines, tinnitus, dizziness, vertigo - Sleep disturbances - Immune system imbalances, allergies, Herpes zoster (Shingles) - Gastro-intestinal conditions - Musculoskeletal problems including joint pain, back pain - Upper respiratory disorders e.g. sinusitis, asthma - Hypertension (High blood pressure)". The advertiser acknowledged that it did not hold evidence for all the claims in the ad and volunteered to remove those for which it did not hold evidence. For the remainder, it submitted a significant body of evidence, some of which the ASA submitted to be reviewed independently by an expert. Although the evidence demonstrated that acupuncture could be effective in the relief of pain associated with some conditions, the ASA considered that the advertisers went further than the evidence supported and concluded that the ad was misleading (University College London Hospitals t/a The Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, 12 June 2013).
In light of the evidence reviewed, CAP accepts that practitioners of acupuncture may provide the following:
- Short-term improvement in the symptoms of overactive bladder syndrome (through electro-acupuncture at the SP6 point)
- Short-term relief of tension type headaches
- Short-term relief of migraine headache
- Short-term relief of chronic low back pain
- Short-term relief of neck pain or chronic neck pain
- Short-term relief from temporomandibular (TMD/TMJ) pain
- Temporary adjunctive treatment for osteoarthritis knee pain
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). Claims that acupuncture can help detoxify the body, improve blood circulation, increase metabolism, boost energy, deal with feeling blue, general facial pain, trouble sleeping, elbow pain or shoulder pain are likely to be problematic.
It is possible to advertise 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”. The ASA is yet to be presented with appropriate evidence that acupuncture can be beneficial for those suffering from dental pain and nausea and advertisers should ensure they hold robust evidence before making such claims.
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 relieve the superficial signs of ageing or heal scarring. Marketers should not make claims relating to the improvement of the appearance of skin conditions.
Neither CAP nor the ASA accepts that hand-held acupuncture and acupressure devices work (SCD Ltd, 17 April 2013; Alliance International Ltd, 28 January 2009).