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The Vitamin B scam. Don’t trust Boots

November 21st, 2007 · 16 Comments

Jump straight to the stings.

This advertisement has to be one of the sneakiest bits of spin that I’ve seen in a while. It appeared in today’s Guardian. And a lot more people will see it than will look at the homeopathic nonsense on the Boots ‘education’ site.

What on earth does it mean? One interpretation could be this. We can’t make false claims for Vitamin(s) B in print, but your Boots Pharmacy Team will be happy to do so in private. OK gang, let’s find out. Get out there and ask them. I’ll be happy to post the answers you get (one of those little mp3 recorders is useful).

Boots advert Guardian 21 Nov 07

The Boots web site isn’t much better. Their Vitality Overview says

“The following vitamins and supplements are important for vitality..
B Vitamins
Ginkgo biloba
Ginseng
Iron
Magnesium
Vitamin C”

Needless to say “vitality” isn’t defined and there is the slightest reason to think that any of these things help the “energy level” of any person on a normal diet.

Sting number 1

I went into a large branch of Boots and asked to speak to a pharmacist. This what ensued (BP= Boots Pharmacist).

DC. My eye was caught by your advertisement. I’m pretty healthy for my age but I do get very tired sometimes and it says “ask your Boots pharmacy team, so what can you recommend?”

BP. “Well basically it helps release energy from your cells so you’ll feel more energetic if you have enough vitamin B in your, eh, blood system”

DC. “Ah, I see, I’ll feel more energetic?”

BP. “yes you’ll feel more energetic because it releases the energy from the cells ”

DC. “which vitamin B does that?”

BP. “It’s a complex. it has all the vitamins in it.”

DC. “So which one is it that makes you feel more energetic?”

BP. “Vitamin B”

DC. “All of them? ”

BP. “All of them. It’s mainly vitamin B12″

DC. “Vitamin B12. That makes you feel more energetic?”

BP. “Yes. B12 and B6.”

DC. “hmm B12 and B6. I wasn’t aware of that before so I’m a bit puzzled. I mean, vitamin B12. I thought that was for pernicious anaemia.”

At this point I think the pharmacist was getting a bit suspicious about all my questions (and spotted the recorder) and began to back off.

BP. “Not necessarily. You know its got [pause], basically what its [pause], if you have enough in your diet there’s no need to take an extra vitamin B.” . . .”This is really for people who are on the go and are, you know, unable to get fresh meals.”

Then the senior pharmacist (SP) was called and I repeated the question.

DC. “Will it give me extra energy? It says I should ask my Boots Pharmacy team about that.”

SP. “It may do, yes. It depends on your own body’s individual reaction to it.” . . . “To be honest I’m not the best person to ask about clinical data on it. If you have more detailed questions I can send them to head office”

At this point. I gave up. The first pharmacist ended up with reasonable advice, but only after she’d obviously become suspicious about all my questions (and spotted the recorder). The senior pharmacist just fudged it when asked a direct question. Initially, the ‘expert advice’ was pure gobbledygook. What does one make of it? The fact that I got the right answer in the end, one could argue, makes the first part worse rather than better. She knew the right answer, but didn’t give it straight away. Instead she talked a lot of nonsense in which two quite different meanings of the word ‘energy’ were confused in a way that is only too familiar in the supplement huckster business. I’m not impressed.

Sting number 2

An email enquiry to Boots customer service asked whether Vitamin B really helped ‘vitality’. It elicited this hilarious non-response (original spelling retained).

Dear Mrs M***


Thank you for contacting us regarding an advertisement you have seen in relation to the benifits to vitamin C.

Unfortunately as I am not medically trained I would be unable to provide you with advice on this particular product. I would however, advise that you contact our pharmacy team at your local store via the telephone directly. You’ll find that they will be more than happy to help you further.



Aha, so the Pharmacy Team are medically-trained?

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Tags: advertisements · Anti-science · Bad journalism · Big Pharma · Boots · business · corporate · nutribollocks · PR · spin

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 badchemist // Nov 22, 2007 at 01:30

    Typical schtick, I wouldn’t expect any more from Boots. Looking at the picture though, they must be selling really big pills now, either that or ‘lifetime supply’ packs. If it’s the former I hope they don’t offer an enema alternative.

  • 2 horsa // Nov 22, 2007 at 10:39

    It’s an old truism among journalists that if a headline ends in a question mark (“Is this the answer to the Bermuda Triangle?” “Did aliens build the Pyramids?” etc etc) there’s no need to read further. The answer is always “No”.

  • 3 David Colquhoun // Nov 22, 2007 at 10:58

    Or sometimes the question mark may be a consequence our libel laws.

  • 4 nash // Nov 22, 2007 at 14:10

    Vitamin B?

    Why isn’t Marmite on their list?

  • 5 horsa // Nov 22, 2007 at 14:13

    Not really, no, unless the newspaper lawyer concerned is either particularly reckless or unusually stupid. Rely on a question mark in a headline as a defence in a libel action, and you are likely to find yourself rapidly poorer, probably without ever reaching court. A defamatory suggestion phrased as a question is no less defamatory than the equivalent suggestion phrased as a statement. You are still putting into the head of the reader something that exposes the subject to hatred, ridicule or contempt, causes them to be shunned or avoided, discredits them in their trade, business or profession, or generally lowers them in the eyes of right thinking members of society, question mark or not.

  • 6 David Colquhoun // Nov 22, 2007 at 15:25

    uhuh so now I’m nervous.

  • 7 Claire // Nov 22, 2007 at 16:12

    I’m not sure how the poor woman in the illustration is going to ask for help, as she seems to have no mouth – or nose either. Can Vitamin B help such dire deficiencies? Also, if she has children, as she’s scratching her head, she might need the nit lotion section…

  • 8 DMcILROY // Nov 22, 2007 at 22:29

    Yes, well there’s gold in them thar pills. As a visit to any pharmacy in France will prove. We have racks and racks of pricey supplements of all kinds, and no lack of earnest pharmacists to recommend the right bottle for you. The way I hear it from my family contacts in pharmacies here, the profit margin on prescription drugs is pathetic, so to make real money you’ve got to shift parapharmacy products that are much more profitable. I imagine that’s what’s behind the Boots ad. However, just like doctors pharmacies in France are not allowed to advertise. Perhaps a similar law in the UK is needed.

  • 9 Claire // Nov 23, 2007 at 12:38

    “However, just like doctors pharmacies in France are not allowed to advertise” (DMcIlroy)

    That’s an interesting point, in the light of pharmacist prescribing and the idea that pharmaces are “the NHS front door”, according to this press release (pdf): http://www.rpsgb.org.uk/pdfs/pr070913.pdf

  • 10 Pharmacists and health care « rash matters // Nov 25, 2007 at 21:08

    [...] They also have a particular problem is that most chemist shops sell lots and lots of products that have no real claim to work–at least not in a medical sense. The modern pharmacy mixes science and witchcraft. This is not an approach conducive to good health or impartial advice. David Colqohooum tells a nice tale [...]

  • 11 Boots reaches new level of dishonesty with CoQ10 promotion // Mar 13, 2008 at 17:35

    [...] Standards People can’t touch press releases, just as they can’t control what Boots Expert Team tell you face to face in the [...]

  • 12 Royal Pharmaceutical Society defends quackery // Jun 5, 2008 at 15:33

    [...] Neither does it accord with the appalling advice that I got from a Boots pharmacist about Vitamin B for vitality. [...]

  • 13 Patent medicines in 1938 and now: A.J.Clark’s book. // Sep 29, 2008 at 22:23

    [...] there is the deeply dishonest promotion by Boots the Chemists of homeopathic miseducation, of vitamins and of CoQ10 [...]

  • 14 uberVU - social comments // Nov 25, 2009 at 18:25

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by david_colquhoun: Boots in disgrace again Times Online http://bit.ly/5NoUsB See also http://bit.ly/8S2FcM and http://bit.ly/6YQx6y and http://bit.ly/7QDjEw

  • 15 Lactium: more rubbish from Boots the Chemists. And a more serious problem // Nov 28, 2009 at 07:46

    [...] you trust Boots? Don’t Trust Boots Boots reaches new level of dishonesty with CoQ10 [...]

  • 16 Pseudo-regulation: another chance to save the MHRA from looking idiotic // Feb 18, 2011 at 12:14

    [...] about Boots’ Professional standards, take a look at Mis-education at Boots the Chemist, or The Vitamin B scam. Don’t trust Boots, or Boots reaches new level of dishonesty with CoQ10 promotion, to name but a few. The oral [...]

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