Still no evidence for life-saving claim

4 July 2013

"It's a key principle of the advertising regulatory system that if you make a claim in your ad, you've got to be able to prove it."

That's what the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) CEO Guy Parker told one BBC programme yesterday.

Unfortunately, our experience suggests that in practice, the ASA falls some way short of this laudable aim.

Last year, St John Ambulance told millions of prime time viewers that "First aid could help to prevent up to 140,000 deaths each year. The same number that die from cancer."

A striking and important claim, and one that deserved to be backed up with evidence. When we asked for it however, St John Ambulance refused to tell us how they'd reached the figure, or even which causes of death they thought a first aid intervention could have prevented.

So, for example, we still don't know whether they think meningitis deaths could be avoided with better first aid or not.

Hoping to get to the bottom of the matter, we asked the ASA to intervene. Surely an organisation for whom it is a key principle that "if you make a claim in your ad, you've got to be able to prove it" would see that it is unreasonable to expect the public to trust this claim if they are denied the evidence behind it?

Apparently not. The ruling published yesterday clears St John Ambulance to continue using the claim, despite the fact that we still don't know where the 140,000 figure comes from.

In fact bizarrely, the judgement actually recognises that there is no proper research underpinning the claim. it reads: "SJA pointed out that there was little or no research in the fields of first-aid and pre-hospital care to assess the effectiveness of first aid treatments in preventing death from the medical conditions they had identified in ONS data."

Christopher Hitchens's dictum that "what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence" is tempting, but here's why we think that St John Ambulance's claim doesn't stack up:

  1. St John Ambulance told the ASA that they assumed that first aid could have prevented 100% of deaths in each of the categories it looked at to reach its 140,000 figure. 
  2. We know this assumption is not true. For example, St John Ambulance themselves report the success rate of CPR as below 1 in 7. 
  3. So the claim that "first aid could help to prevent up to 140,000 deaths each year" cannot be true even on St John Ambulance's terms.

The problem, of course, is that we don't know what the true "up to" figure is because, as St John Ambulance themselves say, we mostly don't know how effective first aid techniques are for different conditions.

The ASA's message seems to be that it's willing to treat a claim as substantiated even when all sides accept that proper research is not available to support it. This is a dangerous precedent to set.

St John Ambulance does important work, and the number of people whose lives could be saved through better first aid training is clearly not a trivial topic. But this makes it more vital, not less, that the public is provided with trustworthy information.

We think the ASA has made a mistake in allowing St John Ambulance to continue to air this claim, and for this reason we'll be asking the regulator for a review of this decision. We're also continuing to ask St John Ambulance to publish their full working, so the public can judge the trustworthiness of the claim for themselves.

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.