In an online news site (or a regular newspaper), under its "Health" section, there are sometimes extremely dubious articles published. Some of them contain nutrition advice which poses a potential health risk to anyone who follows it. They might belong to the alternative medicine school at best.

As an example, a few months ago an article was published by a nutritionist advising readers to immediately stop consuming any and all dairy products. There were some (unreferenced, generally viewed as incorrect) reasons why this is important to do. The author also advised to consume calcium through deer horns and turtle shells because these apparently have a higher calcium absorption rate than dairy products1.

I'm not interested in opening a discussion on the contents of this article, but rather on what an individual can do to stop a newspaper from publishing potential health risking articles. To make the idea clearer, imagine an article which advises the readers to consume cyanide and suppose no one actually follows the advice, can a reader sue or file a complaint with a legal basis against publishing of such content? What laws should one look at?

In the case I gave above, I wrote to the editorial staff a complaint letter, but was completely ignored.

1 While it might be true, by taking the numbers supplied in the article itself I calculated that since dairy products contain more calcium overall, even with lower absorption rates the amount of calcium absorbed is many times greater.

  • Was the article posted as opinion or science? I can't help but feel if there were grounds 99.9% of all periodicals would need to change their practices. – Scott Jan 18 '16 at 22:28
  • @SOIA It is under the "Health" section, subsection "Diet". I don't see a mention for either. The news site mostly deals with "real" news, it just has "Technology", "Health", Travel" etc. sections, none of which are labeled as opinions or science. – user1803551 Jan 18 '16 at 23:11
  • Just for interest: in the U.K. there are specific laws regarding cancer under the Cancer Act 1939. I realise this doesn't answer the question, but it is interesting nonetheless (IMO). – Ken Sharp Jan 19 '16 at 16:51
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    @user1803551 You can't claim to cure or offer a treatment of cancer without real scientific research to back it up. There's a lot of snake oil salesmen. – Ken Sharp Jan 19 '16 at 17:07
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    @user1803551 The Cancer Act is specific to cancer. It's an old piece of legislation. That's a good question though: many wallies claim to cure pain by using magic pebbles, voodoo and whatnot. I simply don't know what the law says on other diseases. I have to assume anybody can say whatever they like. A court can, however, stop them from doing so if harm may be caused. (Telling an AIDS patient to eat rusty nails as a cure will likely see you in court). Choosing to not take medical advice on the other hand is an informed choice. So I could claim that anti-retroviral drugs don't work I suppose. – Ken Sharp Jan 19 '16 at 17:17

There probably isn't any basis for legal action, as news paper columns fall under free-speech and everybody have a right to their own opinion and articulate such under free-speech.

While you have the right to your own opinion you don't have any rights to your own facts -- but as a critical reader you have figured out that the news paper were communicating opinion and not fact simply because they failed to cite any scientific references.

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    But freedom of speech has limitations. While I have the right for my own opinion, I might not have the right to publicly advertise it. For example, in (most?) western countries you can't speak in public or advertise in favor of a massacre of some local population. – user1803551 Jan 18 '16 at 23:16
  • That is true that hate speech is often restricted, but that is not what we are taking about here. – Soren Jan 18 '16 at 23:19
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    So a newspaper is allowed to advertise consumption of cyanide as healthy by exercising the freedom-of-speech right of the one who submitted the article? – user1803551 Jan 18 '16 at 23:25
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    Yes I believe they may. There are many product which is not necessarily good for you that they can advertise, from saturated fat to certain types of sugar. Think of that until recently it was legal to advertise tobacco, which now explicitly is illegal to advertise -- and I think that is the key, unless explicitly forbidden it is covered under free-speech. The US is assuming that you take responsibility for your own well being rather than being mandated as to what you can and cannot do. – Soren Jan 18 '16 at 23:40
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    In the U.K. this kind of thing can be regulated, not always well, by a number of watchdogs. In the case of advertising the Advertising Standards Agency would never allow the advertising of cyanide for any purpose, or any harmful substance to be used in such a way. Fad diets are usually untouched because they don't do much harm, despite not doing any good. – Ken Sharp Jan 19 '16 at 17:10

If you were harmed by the advice, that could give you a reason to sue. A weak reason, in this case, but at least you could link the advice directly to damages. Reading a magazine is not the same as obtaining professional advice, however, so your chances of winning any significant damages are minimal at best.

If you don't agree with the opinion, then that's not a basis for a lawsuit. Especially in a situation where the advice is dubious, but not explicitly harmful. The advice is not that you should avoid calcium. It's that you should source it from somewhere other than dairy products.

  • What if the advice is explicitly harmful, but no one was harmed? – user1803551 Jan 19 '16 at 15:46
  • I think that that probably varies wildly by jurisdiction. – Ken Sharp Jan 19 '16 at 17:10

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