Lawsuits against health fact checking platform dismissed

Two companies have unsuccessfully sued the research platform, Medizin Transparent, located at Danube University Krems

10/12/2020

Two Austrian courts and one German court have dismissed two lawsuits against Cochrane Austria’s health fact checking platform, Medizin Transparent. The lawsuits were triggered by posts published by the platform on the health benefits of a dietary supplement and toothpaste containing hydroxyapatite. In both cases, the Medizin Transparent team came to the conclusion that there is no evidence-base for claiming the alleged effects.

Many companies are currently focusing on increasing health awareness among consumers and promoting their products with various health claims. Consumers often have difficulty distinguishing advertising from documented facts. Therefore, the fact checking platform creates scientifically sound fact checks and publishes them on its website medizin-transparent.at. The platform is operated by Cochrane Austria and located at the Department for Evidence-based Medicine and Evaluation under the direction of Univ.-Prof. Dr. Gerald Gartlehner, MPH.

Two companies filed complaints against the fact checks produced by Medizin Transparent: LaVita GmbH, manufacturer of the nutritional supplement LaVita, and Dr. Wolff GmbH, which sells a toothpaste with the active ingredient hydroxyapatite.

However, both attempts were unsuccessful: The final decisions of the Krems Regional Court, the Vienna Higher Regional Court, and the Düsseldorf Regional Court were clear. In both cases, the courts dismissed the lawsuits, including applications for injunctions, against Medizin Transparent.

The reason behind completing and publishing the fact check was readers' inquiries about the dietary supplement and hydroxyapatite. Readers can send health claims and myths to the Medizin Transparent team via a free inquiry service.

"We receive an average of 200 to 300 inquiries a year. Through extensive research, we analyze the scientific studies on various products. The research results often contradict the marketing-influenced expectations of consumers," explains MMag. Bernd Kerschner, project leader of Medizin Transparent.

Revocation required

In the case of LaVita, Medizin Transparent had received an inquiry as to whether the product was recommended and whether the study results listed on the company's website were correct.

Statements made on LaVita’s website may have given some readers the impression that the dietary supplement increases concentration, improves athletic performance, or combats fatigue and lack of energy–even if the company did not claim this literally.

The team at Medizin Transparent found that there was no scientific evidence that LaVita products promote health or performance. This assessment was published on medizin-transparent.at in September 2015 and updated in September 2018 without any major changes.

In December 2018, LaVita GmbH demanded the omission and revocation of the statements in the Medizin Transparent post. The lawsuit was finally dismissed at the end of May 2020. LaVita did not lodge an appeal against the first-instance judgment, which makes it final—the Medizin Transparent post may remain online. Previously, LaVita had already failed in the injunction proceedings. The Vienna Higher Regional Court justified this, among other things, with the freedom of science.

An update search in November 2020 did not change the assessment from the Medizin Transparent team.

Disputed amount–150,000 euros

In November 2018, Medizin Transparent was also sued by the company Dr. Wolff GmbH due to a post about the supposed benefit of hydroxyapatite in their toothpaste. The company stated 150,000 euros as the value in dispute.

The research was also carried out at the request of readers. The editorial team examined the studies on the effectiveness of hydroxyapatite in pain-sensitive teeth and on the prevention or treatment of tooth decay. After an in-depth analysis based on evidence-based medicine methods, the Medizin Transparent team concluded that there is no evidence that hydroxyapatite in toothpastes can help against tooth sensitivity or tooth decay. To relay this, an article was published on medizin-transparent.at in September 2016. An update search in September 2018 did not lead to any new findings.

The Dr. Wolff GmbH applied for an injunction in court. Either the Medizin Transparent post should be deleted or modified. Neither the Dr. Wolff GmbH nor their products were mentioned by name in the article. In April 2019, the Düsseldorf Regional Court ruled in favour of Medizin Transparent and dismissed the lawsuit. An update search in November 2020 did not change the assessment from the Medizin Transparent team.

Scientific basis in health issues

"Our job is to check the truth of health claims so that consumers can purchase certain products based on objective facts. With the dismissal of the lawsuits, three courts have now confirmed the importance of independent, evidence-based information for consumers," says Univ.-Prof. Dr. Gerald Gartlehner, Head of the Department for Evidence-based Medicine and Evaluation.

MMag. Bernd Kerschner, an expert in evidence-based health information, is also very pleased with the decision of the courts: "The legal proceedings show the important task that research fulfills for society. A critical analysis of the study situation enables us to objectively check claims from advertising and the Internet."

Medizin Transparent checks whether health information and claims from advertising, the media, and the Internet are scientifically sound. The aim is to present the current scientific facts objectively and to prepare them in a way that is understandable for the population. The topics dealt with are usually based on inquiries from interested citizens. All research is carried out according to strict scientific standards in evidence-based medicine.

The fact checking platform is independent and not reliant on funds from the private sector. Medizin Transparent neither accepts funds from the industry, nor is advertising placed on the website. It is financed exclusively by public funds from the Lower Austrian Health and Social Fund (NÖGUS) and the Federal Health Agency.

Medizin Transparent was founded in 2011 as a project of the scientific non-profit organization Cochrane Austria based at Danube University Krems. Cochrane Austria is part of the international science network, Cochrane. To prevent possible conflicts of interest, Cochrane does not accept commercial sponsorship funds. Its goal is to study, summarize, and analyze health-related issues objectively in order to provide the basis for well-founded health decisions.

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