FREELIFE AGAINST SPASIFIKIntroduction
The General Manager of FreeLife, Pacific Area, Mr Christopher Cooper, has complained to the Press Council about an article published in Issue No. 15 of SPASIFIK. The article, headlined “Buyer Beware”, is about a FreeLife product, Goji Juice, that was advertised and sold to the Tongan community in Auckland as a medicinal treatment for a host of diseases and health problems, including cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes.
The two-page feature article was published by SPASIFIK in July 2006 following a television news report that remarkable health claims were being made by several distributors marketing Goji Juice to the Tongan community in Auckland. It is sold around the world as a dietary supplement with unique nutritional benefits. However, at issue here were advertisements claiming that Goji Juice had therapeutic properties, including the ability to improve or cure diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.
The article was about two people in particular who were associated with the distribution, and promoted the health benefits, of Goji Juice. Both were Tongan and both were health professionals. One was a doctor, the other had worked in the health sector as a health promotions advisor. [The Press Council was later advised she had subsequently resigned her position to work full-time as a distributor of Goji Juice]. Goji Juice was promoted for its health benefits in the Tongan language, both on Access Radio and in newspapers directed at the Tongan community in Auckland.
The article was built around a Tongan woman who had bought Goji Juice on the basis of the therapeutic claims made by the distributors only to find that it appeared to react adversely with her blood pressure medication. Disapproving comments were included from Medsafe, the Food Safety Authority and a Tongan health service in Auckland. The article included a photograph of a bottle of Goji Juice.
Mr Cooper raised a number of objections to the article on the basis of alleged breaches of principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), principle 3 (comment and fact) and principle 6 (headlines and captions). However, the crux of his complaint is that, particularly in light of the prominence of the picture, the article was unfair and lacked balance.
In particular, Mr Cooper complains that the article:
• Gives the impression that FreeLife has illegally promoted Goji Juice as a medicine, whereas those claims were made by an individual distributor without sanction from FreeLife.
• Unfairly reports that Auckland’s Tongan community was targeted by the Tongan language promotions and some members of that community have now fallen ill after drinking the juice.
• Reports a medical opinion that Goji Juice is harmful to diabetics because of the natural sugar levels as if it were a fact.
• Includes a headline and standfirst which suggest that readers should beware of the product pictured.
He argues that comment was required from FreeLife and/or satisfied customers and endorsing professionals by way of balance.
Mr Cooper also raised other objections that are not dealt with in this ruling. Some of those matters relate to third parties and appear to be unsupported by any evidence. They have accordingly been put to one side
The Magazine’s Response
The editor denies any inaccuracy, unfairness or lack of balance. In response to the specific points raised by Mr Cooper, he says:
• The article was based on a complaint by a widow who bought Goji Juice after it was promoted on Access Radio and in Tongan newspapers. From the advertisements she believed it would prevent her from getting cancer, which her husband had died of. It identified the two New Zealand distributors that made those claims. FreeLife was not mentioned.
• The Tongan community was the target of the advertising campaign. The advertisements were made in the Tongan language in media directed at the Tongan community.
• A doctor working in the Tongan community was quoted on an increase in the number of diabetics seeking help after taking Goji Juice as a medicine, in the erroneous belief that it would cure their diabetes, as claimed in the advertisements.
• Goji Juice is harmful to diabetics because it has high natural sugar levels, (citing another doctor in support of the factual accuracy of the medical opinion quoted in the article), particularly when consumed in large and regular amounts at the expense of regular medication.
• The headline and picture were not unfair.
The editor argues that the article was based not on the benefits or otherwise of Goji Juice, but the medical claims made by the New Zealand distributors in the Tongan advertisements. There was therefore no need to seek favourable comment about Goji Juice by way of balance from any person, consumer or professional.
Further submissions and responses
In his final submission to the Press Council, Mr Cooper reiterated that the tone of the article was such that most reasonable people would beware of drinking Goji Juice, and that the use of emotive words in the article and in headlines and standfirst reinforced this. The editor responded that the article reported facts, all of which were properly attributed.
The Press Council is not persuaded that the article was inaccurate, unfair or unbalanced. Nor was there any blurring of the line between fact and comment.
Mr Cooper has not provided any evidence of factual inaccuracies whereas the magazine has been able to point to undisputed facts and a further medical opinion as evidence to counter Mr Cooper’s objections.
The article was about the promotion of Goji Juice in the Tongan community of Auckland as a medicine and the effects on one person in particular who bought and used Goji Juice as a medicine in reliance on those advertisements. It is quite clear that the therapeutic claims were made by two New Zealand promoters, both of whom are identified in the article, not the manufacturer. The article had its origins in a television report and appeared to rely heavily on that source. A comment from FreeLife might have been worthwhile but was not imperative, given that the company was not the subject of the complaint.
The use of a photograph of a bottle of the Goji juice is illustrative and its publication does not sway the reader one way or another.
The reference to an increase in diabetics ailing after using Goji Juice as a medicine was the clearly attributed diagnostic opinion, of a named doctor, based on anecdotal evidence of patients presenting at the health centre where she worked.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and John McClintock.