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ACCC drops the ball in faith healing case

29 April 2011. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has dropped its case against Gwyneth Graham who advertised a bogus cure for cancer on "spiritual" websites. The websites, now disabled, included www.spiritualhealerwa.com, themessiackingdom.com, thelittlebookofgod.net, thelittlebookofgod.com, and www.messiackingdom.biz. Graham is associated with the Spiritual Healing Association of Western Australia.

The ACCC alleged that Graham falsely represented her ability to cure cancer using faith healing. She promised to heal people who visited her in Kununurra for a fee of $450. Her "spiritual healing," she proclaimed in emails and on her websites, was "100 per cent effective" and healed "all types" of cancer. Graham's cancer treatment included walking into water and re-emerging "like Jesus."

The ACCC charged that the claims were misleading and deceptive. Hmmm. Why not call them lies and delusions?

So, why did the ACCC drop the case? The commission's regional director, Sam Di Scerni, said it was decided the prosecution was not worthwhile. "Generally with discontinuance you look at all the circumstances of the case," he said. "In this case the conduct ceased immediately, there was no evidence that any consumers had been adversely affected and given that the individual was unrepresented, the commission thought it was no longer worth pursuing the matter because all the objectives had been achieved."

Really? So, as long as you can't prove that I actually harmed anyone, I can falsely advertise my supernatural ability to cure cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and any other thing that might ail someone by simply whispering to the cosmos "you're cured"? Isn't one of the objectives of the ACCC to hand out punishments that might deter others from engaging in the same kind of false advertising?

There may be something else going on, however.

A Perth judge raised concerns about the case when he suggested that it would test the blurred border between trade practices issues and matters of faith and spirituality.

Federal Court Justice Antony Siopis made the comments during proceedings against Graham. He said the case raised difficult areas of law: one might compare "faith healing" with fortune-telling or the Catholic Church's use of Lourdes to work "miracle cures." The case, said Justice Siopis, involves the blurry point where commerce begins and spirituality ends. Really? Sounds to me like the judge is speaking in tongues.

"When one gets into matters of spirituality, one is on a very slippery slope," the judge said, making a distinction between "alleged drug-based cures and those that required faith or a belief from the client."

"Can you ever find that the conduct is misleading if it's founded on a representation that 'I can if you believe',?" Justice Siopis asked. Good point. If you aren't cured, it's because you don't believe. Can you prove otherwise? I don't see how, though some might argue that the fact that you paid proves you believe. The scammer can reply, however, that your belief wasn't pure enough or strong enough. How do you measure such things?

The judge said he understood concerns about the effect of faith healing claims on vulnerable people, but he suggested the ACCC needed to give serious thought about whether it was appropriate to pursue the case given the legal complexity. "Legal complexity?" You might call this a metaphysical quandary for consumer health law. Faith healers and other peddlers of snake oil don't need a quack Miranda warning. They are fully protected by the law if they issue the "you gotta believe" warning. If you believe in miracles and are sick or dying, then have I got something you'll want to buy!

The ACCC faces a dilemma. It must police claims to see if they are false or misleading, but faith healing claims with the "you-gotta-believe" warning can't be confirmed or falsified because they're not testable.

Of course, the ACCC could get out of this mess by simply declaring (or getting a federal law passed that declares) that all advertising regarding cures of illnesses or diseases be science-based and that science-based health claims must be testable.

further reading

Cancer cure claims 'misleading and deceptive'

ACCC drops case against cancer cure claims

ACCC hunts spiritual cancer ‘curer’

Judge raises doubts over healing case



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ACCC drops the ball in faith healing case

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