The Charity Commission, which regulates charities in the UK, has begun a consultation into its approach to bodies that promote complementary and alternative medicines (CAM).
Last year, lawyers wrote to the Charity Commission on behalf of the Good Thinking Society, a pro-science charity, suggesting that if the commission refused to revoke the charitable status of organisations that promote homeopathy, it could be subject to a judicial review.
The commission said that it would engage in a review on the subject, to be completed by 1 July 2017, but had taken no further steps until now.
The news comes a month after BuzzFeed News revealed that a British charity, the Autism Trust, was promoting "dangerous" unlicensed treatments for autism by linking to them and scientifically unfounded claims about the risks of vaccines on social media.
According to the commission's rules, charities must meet a "public benefit test", meaning that they must be able to show, with evidence, that the work they do benefits the public as a whole. The consultation, which opens today, will determine what nature of evidence is required to demonstrate that a CAM-promoting charity provides this benefit.
In a press release, it said it will consider what to do in the face of "conflicting or inconsistent" evidence of a treatment's effectiveness, and whether it should approach "complementary" treatments, intended to work alongside conventional medicine, differently from "alternative" treatments intended to replace it.
John Maton, the commission's head of charitable status, said in a statement: "Our consultation is not about whether complementary and alternative therapies and medicines are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but about what level of evidence we should require when making assessments about an organisation’s charitable status."
In February, BuzzFeed News reported that the social media accounts of the Autism Trust UK, a registered charity, had been promoting several scientifically unfounded treatments for autism, including "Miracle Mineral Solution", an "industrial-strength bleach" linked to at least one death, and "GcMAF", a stem-cell product made from human blood that the UK medicines regulator says "poses a significant risk to people's health".
The Autism Trust posted a press release on its website ahead of BuzzFeed News' earlier piece, saying it focused solely on "creating a future and purpose for young adults with autism" by providing employability and work experience for those young adults.
Michael Marshall of the Good Thinking Society said in a statement: "We are pleased to see the Charity Commission making progress on their review. Too often we have seen little effective action to protect the public from charities whose very purpose is the promotion of potentially dangerous quackery.
"However, the real progress will come when the commission considers the clear evidence that complementary and alternative medicine organisations currently afforded charitable status often offer therapies that are completely ineffective or even potentially harm the public.
"We hope that this review leads to a policy to remove such misleading charities from the register."
Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Tom Chivers at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.