Last week, the Charity Commission announced that the Gerson Support Group had been removed from the charity register. The Gerson Support Group (GSG), which has subsequently close its website and now operates from behind a private Facebook group, is an organisation that was set up in 1997 with the aim to “relieve sickness and to preserve and promote good health by providing support to cancer patients”.
GSG’s method for doing this was, unsurprisingly, to promote the Gerson diet – a regime of dietary supplements, raw juice drinks, and coffee enemas that often comes with the explicit instruction to avoid all conventional treatments. Back in 2018, I spent more than six months documenting hundreds of crowdfunding appeals by cancer patients looking to afford trips to foreign clinics promising miracle cancer cures – a great many of which concerned patients turning to Gerson Therapy, as a result of the advice they received from organisations and charities like the GSG. All too often, those stories ended not with a miraculous recovery, but with a tragic death mired in unnecessary debt.
The removal of the GSG from the charity register is the latest significant development in the regulation of CAM charities in the UK. Central to much of this progress has been the work of clinical research scientist Les Rose from HealthSense (formerly HealthWatch), who for the better part of a decade has been tenacious in drawing the attention of the Charity Commission to dangerous and misleading claims made by registered charities.
It was Rose’s work that appeared in the Sunday Times in March 2016, in an article highlighting how “quack” health groups had been granted charitable status, and it was the same work that formed the basis of an open letter, published in the Sunday Times in June 2016, which was signed by a dozen healthcare specialists, calling for the Charity Commission to take action against CAM charities lest they undermine the reputation of the charitable sector as a whole.
At the time, the Charity Commission said they weren’t able to review every charity to ensure it wasn’t making misleading health claims, explaining that they lacked the resources to continually review all 165,000+ charities on the register. Obviously, nobody was suggesting every single charity needed to be reviewed afresh, and between HealthSense and Good Thinking we provided a list of the 28 charities we were most concerned about. Gerson Support Group was on that list, back in mid 2016, six years ago.
In September 2016, Good Thinking wrote a letter to the Charity Commission explaining that the Commission’s failure to take regulatory action against charities like the Gerson Support Group could be challenged via Judicial Review. As a result, the Commission assured us that they would hold a consultation on the subject of regulating CAM charities, in order to ensure their guidelines were as clear and as comprehensive as was necessary, and in mid 2017 that consultation took place.
There are a number of charities who should take this as a clear sign that they need to review whether their actions align with this new guidance, and ask themselves what evidence they have to demonstrate that the therapies they promote and provide actually have the benefits they claim. If they find they cannot meet these new guidelines, they should refocus their activities and then amend what claims they make to patients and the public, to ensure that they are not in breach of charity law.
Of course, releasing new guidelines is one thing, but the important bit is how those new guidelines get put into practice, which is why Les picked back up his complaint-writing pen and began to submit new complaints afresh, starting in September 2019 with the Gerson Support Group. That date is interesting – because, as the Charity Commission explain in their press release – it coincides with their opening of an investigation into the Gerson Support Group. It is particularly encouraging that the Commission explicitly highlight the application of the new guidelines during the investigation:
In 2018, we reviewed our approach to assessing the charitable status of CAM organisations. The review concluded that to satisfy the public benefit requirement and qualify for charitable status, an organisation that claims to offer a cure or treatment must provide objective scientific evidence.
This guidance is now helping to ensure that CAM organisations that cannot evidence their claims do not benefit from charitable status.
The new guidelines allowed the Commission to clearly judge the public benefit of the Gerson Support Group, and given that the group primarily existed to encourage cancer patients to try a disproven and dangerous dietary cure for their condition, it’s easy to see how the charity fell short of offering a public benefit. This was a point the trustees of the charity accepted during the review:
In response to the Commission’s concerns, the organisation’s trustees acknowledged that the evidence around Gerson nutritional therapy, and its claims to treat cancer and its symptoms, would not now meet the Commission’s criteria for registration as a charity.
It is extremely encouraging to see that the Gerson Support Group will no longer be able to use their charitable status to promote a disproven and wholly ineffective therapy to vulnerable cancer patients. However, this is far from the only example of an organisation using its charitable status to encourage the public to put their trust in unproven and potentially harmful forms of treatment. It is not even the only charity spreading misinformation about cancer.
The Charity Commission seem to be entirely aware of this point, and according to the blog post the released alongside the announcement about GSG, signs are positive that action will be taken against other charities who spread health misinformation:
We are conducting a number of other ongoing cases involving concerns about some CAM organisations. In some of these cases, our concerns may be resolved through dialogue with the trustees. If our work reveals that an CAM organisation on the register cannot demonstrate public benefit, then we will take firm and robust action to remove it from the register.
It is interesting to see the Charity Commission make such a strong commitment to remove charities that cannot demonstrate public benefit, and to see them make it in such unequivocal terms. The action taken against the GSG is an excellent first step in protecting the public and the reputation of the charity sector as a whole – but it is only the first step. What comes next for the charity sector as a whole will be key.
As for what comes next for the Gerson Support Group, the charitable aspect of the organisation has been wound down, and the charity’s headquarters has been sold – which accounts for the £300k+ influx of income the charity reported in April 2021. According to their financial filings, when the charity was wound down, it made a £200k+ donation to Local Giving – an organisation that works as the fundraising arm of other charities. It isn’t immediately apparent which of the charities on there the money went to.
It is, however, possible to see the recipients of the other large donations made during the winding down of GSG: £35k was given to Together Against Cancer, and a further £80k was given to Yes to Life. The former, at least, seem to restrict their advice to complementary therapies that don’t claim to be able to cure cancer (though they have member-only areas that are not available to view); the latter, sadly, go much further in the claims they are willing to make. Yes to Life currently recommends thermographic imaging for cancer screening and disease monitoring, encourages patients to visit the notorious Hallwang Clinic in Germany, and more. Back in 2014, Dr Alice Howarth, Deputy Editor of The Skeptic, attended a Yes to Life seminar in Manchester and reported back on the many concerning claims made – including denigration of conventional medicine, recommendations for mistletoe therapy, alkaline diets, laetrile… and, to bring us full circle, Gerson therapy.
While it is an unambiguously good thing that the Gerson Support Group are no longer able to operate as a registered charity, the Charity Commission cannot rest on their laurels – not while there are groups like Yes to Life who continue to make effectively similar claims to the GSG, about the same therapies, and even making use of the same financial resources.
Regulation can sometimes feel like a game of Whack-A-Mole – wind down one organisation, and everything will simply shift to another. However, every time one of these moles is whacked, and every time another cancer ‘cure’ charity is stopped, it becomes a little harder to promote misinformation and dangerous pseudotherapies to vulnerable cancer patients.