Animal Magnetism

March 11th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, alternative medicine, bad science, magnets | 62 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday March 11, 2006
The Guardian

So last week, it was all about the magnetic ulcer bandages that were suddenly officially available on the NHS: they are made by Magnopulse, who also sell a magnet for the ladies that will give you “softer skin, shiny hair and stronger nails”, and a dog bowl magnet: “given the choice, your pet will always choose to drink magnetic water”. This absurdity didn’t seem to worry the NHS Prescription Pricing Authority, although they were too shy to reveal the evidence they used to make this excellently amusing decision.

And this week, in a brilliant display of joined up government, it was announced that the very same Magnopulse are being taken to the High Court by the Office of Fair Trading, who are seeking an injunction against them over the dramatic and unqualified claims in their adverts, which Magnopulse have consistently refused to tone down.

They have, of course, already passed through the toothless ASA, who ineffectually told them off for claiming that their products were “clinically proven” and “new”. Now, class, the irony of making those two claims in the same breath is that the first placebo controlled trial in the history of medicine was done on magnet therapy in 1784: by Antoine Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin, investigating the claims of Dr Franz Mesmer, who got his patients to sit with their feet in magnetised water, and hug magnetised trees.

He brilliantly “discovered” that you can cut a patient and make them bleed, and if you pass a magnet over the wound , the bleeding will stop. He also brilliantly discovered that if he waved a stick about, the bleeding would stop too. Anyone who had ever seen a wound stop bleeding by itself suggested to Mesmer that “doing nothing” (or “jumping about and swearing a lot”) might be equally effective, and so, out of a simple desire to compare these two possibilities, with some finessing, the blinded trial was born. Negative trials on magnet therapy have been around for as long as trials and magnet therapy themselves, and if you don’t believe me, see also “Mesmer” (Potter, Dennis et al 1994), the Hollywood flop starring Alan Rickman as Franz. You won’t fault me on the academic references.

And you won’t fault the alternative therapists either. Lilias Curtin, Cherie Booth’s alternative therapist, appeared on GMTV on Tuesday talking about magnet therapy with four small magnets sellotaped to her neck. She delivered the usual chat about how blood contains iron, and then referred to thousands of trials showing the benefit of magnetism. It turned out she seemed to be talking about papers on Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanners, which take pictures of your insides, and don’t treat anything: but Curtin parried that lots of people feel great when they come out of MRI scanners, because they get a “huge dose” of magnet power in there.

Now this got me thinking. Firstly, if people really do believe all this stuff about magnets influencing the iron in blood, it must puzzle them why they don’t bulge when they go through the MRI scanner. But secondly, faced with such a difference of scale, doesn’t it make them want to go and buy a proper magnet? I recently had the pleasure of playing with the extremely dangerous magnetic neodymium used for steering nuclear particles in accelerators, and my big discovery for the day was that a 3″ x 1″ disc shaped neodymium magnet only costs about sixty quid. Two of them, if they get out of control, will easily break your arm. Metal objects turn into airborne projectiles and fly across the room to get near them. You have to think ahead and plan a route before you move these things, because computers and monitors will be affected through walls, discs are wiped, and any clutter lying around will be instantly tidied up in a brief and dangerous session of extreme sports magnetic hoovering. What I’m saying is, I can understand the appeal, and the sense of wonder, and power, in magnets: but they’re not for work, they’re for pleasure. And no, you are not responsible enough to own the 3″ one.

· Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk

UPDATE:

www.oft.gov.uk/News/Press+releases/2006/82-06.htm

Another company, Magna, rather disappointingly backed down before they got to the high court.

Misleading magnetic therapy claims stopped

OFT takes action against Magna Jewellery Limited

82/06 28 April 2006

Magna Jewellery Limited, a company which sells jewellery and other products containing magnets as a form of pain relief, has agreed to change its advertising following action by the OFT.

The OFT considers that a number of the company’s advertising claims were misleading under the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations. Magna Jewellery Ltd and its officers, Jeffrey Frankel and Laura Neal, have given binding undertakings to the OFT that they will not make advertising claims stating or giving the impression that:

* magnetic products have a therapeutic effect caused by a specified physiological mechanism, such as an increase in circulation. This includes claims like: ‘Their therapeutic properties are derived from tiny but powerful earth magnets, which create a strong magnetic field. As your blood flows through this field it becomes oxygenated, which helps to rejuvenate the body cells. This is needed to reduce swelling of joints and improve circulation, all of which alleviates pain,’ and, ‘The reason the back support is so effective in relieving back pain is a combination of its construction, which holds the back firm, and the 28 powerful magnets which increase blood circulation.’
* the therapeutic effect of magnetic products is established or proven by scientific trials. This includes claims like, ‘Only Magna Therapy Jewellery is clinically proven to relieve pain,’ and that the idea magnetic fields improve circulation, ‘has been reinforced by medical research studies.’
* products have a therapeutic effect due to their magnets (or magnetic fields) and/or will in all cases produce a therapeutic effect for those who wear them. This includes claims like, ‘The pain relieving properties are derived from tiny but powerful magnets;’ and, ‘Magnetic pain relief bracelets really work.’

The undertakings also restrict the publication of advertisements using customer testimonials which repeat any of the above claims.

Magna Jewellery Limited, Mr Frankel and Ms Neal have not admitted that their advertising claims are misleading.

Christine Wade, Director of Consumer Regulation Enforcement, said:

‘Magna Jewellery Ltd targets its products at consumers who are looking for relief from pain. Where advertisements claim products have therapeutic effects it is important they do not mislead consumers. These undertakings given to the OFT will protect consumers.’

If the undertakings given to the OFT are breached, a High Court injunction can be sought. Failure to comply with an injunction may result in proceedings for contempt of court.

The OFT is committed to targeting healthcare as a priority area for the next three years.

NOTES

1. All the undertakings were signed on 7 April 2006 and received by the OFT on 19 April 2006.

2. Magna Jewellery Limited’s business address is PO Box 338, Edgware, Middlesex, HA8 8HZ. Jeffrey Frankel is a director of the company. Laura Neal is a director and its company secretary.

3. The undertakings also apply to Mr Frankel and Ms Neal in a personal capacity, preventing them being involved in the publication or dissemination of advertisements of the kinds referred to above by any other business.

4. The OFT obtained the undertakings from Magna Jewellery Ltd, Mr Frankel and Ms Neal under the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations 1988 (the CMARs). The CMARs aim to protect consumers and businesses from misleading advertisements and advertisements that make prohibited comparisons. The OFT’s main role under the CMARs is to support and reinforce the existing advertising controls exercised by other bodies, such as the Advertising Standards Authority (the ASA), not replace them. The OFT will usually step in where action by those other bodies has not resolved complaints about an advertisement and it is in the public interest that the OFT should act.

5.The ASA referred Magna Jewellery Ltd’s advertising to the OFT for consideration under the CMARs as the company continued to advertise having not provided substantiation for its claims as required under the ASA’s British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing

6. The OFT can only act under the CMARs when a complaint about an advertisement is received. To come within the scope of the CMARs, an advertisement must be misleading (i.e. it must deceive or be likely to deceive the recipient and affect their economic behaviour, or for those reasons harm the interests of a competitor), and be published in connection with a trade, business, craft or profession, in order to promote the supply or transfer of goods or services, immovable property, rights or obligations. The OFT can take action against anyone appearing to be concerned or likely to be concerned with the publication of a misleading advertisement.

7. Only a court can decide that an advertisement is misleading under the CMARs. It has not done so here.


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62 Responses



  1. Frank Morgan said,

    March 20, 2006 at 3:25 pm

    Complimentary therapy telling someone etc (post 39 Ian) you do have a sense of humour at least well done.
    Frank Morgan.

  2. Hanne said,

    March 21, 2006 at 11:45 am

    martin g-
    Man, she must have needed the loo halfway through that experiment! Did they factor that in?
    But yes, great stuff in that link of yours..

    Ben-
    Yes, you know the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. Nowadays, it seems like they will..

  3. Frank Morgan said,

    March 21, 2006 at 6:35 pm

    Small point all adages are old they dont need to be qualified.
    Maybe a bit petty but ther you are.
    Frank

  4. DK said,

    March 23, 2006 at 10:38 am

    Frank

    Ref #53

    Being even more petty, when does an adage become an adage?

    At some point it has to be new, surely – unless of course you subscribe to the theory that adages were created by a divine being at the start of the universe :-)

    DK

  5. Frank Morgan said,

    March 23, 2006 at 12:34 pm

    DK,

    I dont think you qualify for being petty, senseless rather as far as this goes.. You need to read Troublesome Words, Bill Bryson(revised edition page 3) mabye you would like to write to him to keep him right?. I am sure he would appreciate your thoughts!
    Kind regards,
    Frank.

  6. Big Al said,

    March 24, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    I understand that the iron in haemoglobin is in a diamegnetic, not ferromagnetic state; so it actually ought to be slightly repelled by magnets, not attracted by them. However, I understand these “therapeutic” magnets are no different from fridge magnets anyway, so the field will never make it through your skin.

  7. Colin B said,

    March 24, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    This test conducted 3 times on my sisters dog which by the way does`nt normally like water.
    In each case 2 identical bowls 1 with tap water, 1with magnetised water, and much to the sceptics disbelief the dog went for wait for it the MAGNETISED version mmmmm.

  8. Big Al said,

    March 24, 2006 at 3:16 pm

    Were the bowls always in the same relative position?

  9. Geoff D said,

    March 26, 2006 at 3:31 pm

    I did my PhD on magnetic resonance devices and have wondered about how these magnetic bracelets and bandages could possibly work. My wife bought some acumed pain patches from Boots. These contain small magnets surrounded by ‘copper micro spheres’. Having suffered from an irritatingly painful pain in my shoulder for ten or more years I thought I would give them a go. Rather worryingly they seem to give quite a lot of relief and are cheaper than pain killers. I hang my head in shame. I’ll be taking homeopathic remedies next.

  10. TimW said,

    October 20, 2006 at 6:16 pm

    OK, I’m a tiny bit late here, but I’ve noticed that the magna-health.com homepage includes all this sort of guff hidden away in the HTML:

    META name=”description” content=”Magna Jewellery Ltd markets the Magna Therapy Bracelet and Necklace which has been clinically proven to relieve arthritic pain. The Jewellery incorporates tiny but powerful natural earth magnets. The company offers an unconditional 30-day no-quibble money back guarantee.”
    META name=”keywords” content=”magna,magna jewellery,magna therapy,magnet,magnet therapy,magnetic,magnetic deficiency syndrome (etc. etc.)

    You see some of this stuff if you do a Google search that finds the page, e.g. a search for Magna Jewellery.

    My question would be, does that constitute advertising? Or more specifically, are they in breach of the agreement they’ve made with the OFT?

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