An unproven claim by a Tauranga health and wellness centre that its "InfraRed sauna" could "kill off tumours and mutated cells" has been slammed as "irresponsible", "dangerous" and offering "false hope" by people who work with cancer patients.
A radiation therapy expert says she believes the claim does not stack up scientifically, while other organisations consider it was misleading to consumers and may breach advertising and fair-trading laws.
The claim was on the website of the business, ReDefined, at least as recently as Thursday. The Bay of Plenty Times sought comment on Monday.
The claim has been removed from the website and ReDefined has apologised for the "misunderstanding", saying the marketing material was not meant to indicate the sauna could kill or have "any effect on cancer whatsoever".
ReDefined opened in Pāpāmoa in September, pitching itself as being about health and wellbeing and movement.
According to its website, company directors Benjamin Jackson and James August aimed to use "proven science, with a holistic purpose" to simplify often confusing messages about how to improve overall wellbeing.
One of the "health services" advertised on its website is an "InfraRed sauna".
A page listed the health benefits supposedly associated with the "repair and detoxification" treatment.
Among the listed "benefits" was the claim the sauna could "kill off tumours and mutated cells".
The company offered prices for individuals - $20 for 30 minutes - as well as group pricing and weekly membership options.
In an email response to questions from the Bay of Plenty Times about the tumour claim, the company said: "Our website was updated, and this was removed a while ago ... may need to clear your cookies.
"This was not meant to indicate that Infra-Red sauna kills cancer, nor have any effect on cancer whatsoever."
The company provided images of signs around the sauna and social media posts about the sauna, "none of which make any claims about any effect on cancer".
"If any of our marketing claims came across this way or confused anyone we do apologise for any misunderstanding," the company said.
Otago University Department of Radiation Therapy associate professor Patries Herst said the only thing infrared radiation achieved in a sauna was heating up the first two to three centimetres of the body.
"Infrared radiation used in saunas does not selectively kill tumour or mutated cells."
She said she believed it would heat up all cells in exactly the same way - healthy cells, mutated cells, benign and malignant tumours - and increase blood supply and cells' rate of metabolism.
She said there were scientific articles that mentioned infrared decreasing the growth of a select group of cancer types that have a specific mutation, however, to her knowledge this was only in culture flasks in the laboratory.
These articles mentioned nothing about how much infrared was on the cells and for how long, and there was no mention of it being tested on animals.
"It is easy to kill or stop growth of cancer cells in a culture flask and this cannot be used to claim that it affects cancer cells in the body."
A study by Oxford University was published last year about a cancer treatment that uses near-infrared light, called photoimmunotherapy.
However, this was done through the injection of an antibody that binds to cancer cells, with near-infrared light used to activate a photo-absorbing chemical that damages the cell membrane.
A spokesman from the Bay of Plenty District Health Board oncology department said he believed the company website's claims caused financial strains and false hope.
He said he believed the claim was "dangerous" as there was no evidence it helped cancer patients in any way and instead could encourage patients to pursue ineffective therapies in replacement for proven ones.
"We generally discourage patients from pursuing treatments like this as [we believe] it causes financial harm and creates false hope."
He said most patients did this sort of thing in addition to, rather than instead of, proven therapies.
While pseudo-science therapies for cancer and tumours had always been around, he said they were becoming increasingly common in the digital world, where alternative therapies are promoted and conventional therapies are disparaged.
"So common that I have prepared a set of responses on alternative therapy which I give to patients."
Consumer NZ head of research Jessica Wilson said traders making unsubstantiated health claims risked breaching both the Fair Trading Act and the Medicines Act.
"In our view, this trader is misleading consumers by making unproven health claims. Its claim the sauna 'kills off tumours and mutated cells' is a major concern," she said.
"Unfortunately, unproven health claims are all too common.
Wilson said she believed ''companies using them often prey on consumers' genuine health concerns to hawk pricey products".
A Commerce Commission spokeswoman said under the Fair Trading Act it was illegal for businesses to make a claim about a good or service without substantiation.
She said they had not investigated the claim specifically, however, any claims made by a business must be accurate, able to be substantiated or proven, and must not mislead or deceive consumers.
The maximum penalty for breaches of the Fair Trading Act is $200,000 for an individual and $600,000 for a business per offence.
Health claims describe a relationship between the use or consumption of a product and a health benefit.
Alternative health practices have the same obligations by law as traditional medical practitioners, in terms of ensuring any claims are accurate and do not mislead consumers.
A Medsafe spokesperson said unless the company could prove the claims, the advertisement is prohibited under section 58(1)(a) of the Medicines Act 1981.
Advertising a method of treatment must meet certain requirements under the Medicines Act.
She said the ReDefined advertisement would be regarded as advertising a method of treatment, under this Act.
"In the advertisement, reference to killing off tumours and mutated cells implies that this is a treatment for cancer," the spokesperson said.
"We doubt this claim would stand scrutiny."
There are also provisions under the Fair Trading Act 1986 in relation to false advertising, they added.
Te Aho o Te Kahu - Cancer Control Agency clinical director Dr Liz Dennett said she believed the claims made about the sauna were "irresponsible".
"Many patients choose a range of supportive treatments to help them."
''However, claims such as the ones raised that suggest that unproven remedies might effectively treat cancer are [in my view] irresponsible, inappropriate and quite possibly illegal.
"Living with cancer is an extremely stressful experience. Everyone wants comprehensive treatment and hopes for a complete cure," she said.
Dennett urged patients to always take the advice of their medical team regarding which treatments, medication, and other therapies were best suited to them.
Tips for businesses
• Don't make claims without substantiation that they are true
• Rely on facts, figures and credible sources of information, not guesses and unsupported opinions
• Keep documentation or other information that you have gathered in the process of sourcing or researching a good or service
• You must have reasonable grounds for claims at the time they are made; substantiating a claim after it was made may not get you off the hook.
-Source: Commerce Commission