NHS chief Simon Stevens has warned that misinformation spread online by the wellness industry could put people’s health at risk.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness brand Goop has been singled out by the head of the NHS for promoting treatments that carry “considerable risks to health”.
Simon Stevens took aim at “dubious ‘wellness’ products and dodgy procedures” available from various online sources, saying the ease with which claims can spread on the web has put misinformation “on steroids”.
“Quacks, charlatans and cranks” are exploiting people’s health concerns through ‘fake news’ spread online by the wellness industry, he warned in a speech in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre.
‘Myths and misinformation have been put on steroids by the availability of misleading claims online’
– SIMON STEVENS
The chief executive of NHS England said consumers are risking their health and wasting their money by buying into “too-good-to-be-true remedies”.
The controversial Netflix series
“Fresh from controversies over jade eggs and unusually scented candles, Goop has just popped up with a new TV series, in which Gwyneth Paltrow and her team test vampire facials and back a ‘bodyworker’ who claims to cure both acute psychological trauma and side-effects by simply moving his hands two inches above a customer’s body,” Stevens said.
“Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand peddles ‘psychic vampire repellent’; says ‘chemical sunscreen is a bad idea’; and promotes colonic irrigation and DIY coffee enema machines, despite them carrying considerable risks to health and NHS advice clearly stating there is ‘no scientific evidence to suggest there are any health benefits associated with colonic irrigation’.
“While fake news used to travel by word of mouth, we all know that lies and misinformation can now be round the world at the touch of a button – before the truth has reached for its socks, never mind got its boots on.
“Myths and misinformation have been put on steroids by the availability of misleading claims online.”
Health misinformation online
Stevens continued: “While the term ‘fake news’ makes most people think about politics, people’s natural concern for their health, and particularly about that of their loved ones, makes this particularly fertile ground for quacks, charlatans, and cranks.”
Stevens also said there is a concerning wealth of misinformation around established treatments. He said Russian social media bots and ‘anti-vax’ lies have undermined public faith in life-saving vaccines and spawned current health burdens.
Last year, the UK lost its measles elimination status, along with three other European countries. At the time, the World Health Organisation said misinformation about vaccines was as contagious and dangerous as the diseases it helps to spread.
Later, social media company Pinterest vowed only to provide evidence-based information from leading health experts to its users in a bid to tackle false claims.
The issue of misinformation related to health has gained a great deal of attention in recent years. Belle Gibson, an Australian woman purporting to be a wellness guru made headlines after she claimed that she had healed her brain cancer by changing her diet and using alternative therapies.
Gibson received $440,500 in sales of her app and book, which peddled false information about how to treat cancer. Dubbed a fraudster, Gibson was landed with significant fines when she was brought to court in Australia in 2019.
Goop’s response to criticism
A spokesperson for Goop said: “Goop takes efficacy and product claims very seriously. With the editorial and commercial aspects of our business, we sometimes approach different topics from different points of view.
“On the editorial side, we are transparent when we cover emerging topics that may be unsupported by science or may be in early stages of review. When products are available for retail sale, we have a robust legal and compliance team that works closely with our science and research group to vet product claims.”
The spokesperson added: “We are proud of our procedures and internal protocols and we are constantly evolving to ensure our approach is best in class.
“We applaud the important work that NHS does, and often take our cues from the UK standard. For example, in the case of chemical sunscreens that the NHS cited in their speech, the US bans only 11 personal care ingredients while over 1,000 are banned in the UK. It’s for that reason we recommend non-toxic sunscreens.”
– PA Media, with additional reporting by Kelly Earley