Dragon’s Den accused of  being a scandal and a disgrace


A Dragon’s Den programme on BBC TV on 17 January 2023 featured a business selling acupuncture ear seeds that Giselle Boxer said helped her on her journey of recovery from ME.  A strong backlash followed as sales of acu seeds soared and people in the chronic illness community spoke out with deep concerns about the impact of this unproven treatment.

Here is a selection of what people felt and said:

Hollie-Anne Brooks in Digital Spy (19 January)

Would the BBC allow a show to go out which claimed jelly babies cured heart disease? Or taking up crochet would fix a broken leg?

What was shown on television for several minutes has collectively cost those of us with ME, days and days worth of energy, filling in complaint forms and having unneeded conversations with people about the reality of living with our condition.

Dr Charles Shepherd, Hon Medical Advisor for the ME Association in Digital Spy (19 January):

“The way in which Dragons’ Den has been used to promote an unproven treatment for ME/CFS has, not surprisingly, caused a great deal of upset and concern in the ME patient community.

“People with ME/CFS are fed up with the way in which products like this are regularly being promoted when there is no sound evidence from proper placebo-controlled clinical trials to confirm that they are safe and effective.

ME charities in a letter to Dame Caroline and Mr Brine (22 January)

This episode of Dragons Den demonstrates how misleading information can make its way to even the most trusted forms of media. We feel it is important, in your roles as Chairs of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee respectively, to investigate the role of media in promoting unfounded health claims and the impact this has on our health and safety.

Zoe Young, ear seeds competitor in Daily Mail (24 January):

 Zoe slammed the show as ‘very damaging’ for ME sufferers and legitimate acupuncturists’.

‘She had come along into the market as a social media expert, no background in traditional Chinese medicine,’ she said. She added that ear seeds ‘absolutely cannot cure anything chronic’ but said the portrayal of them on the show is ‘damaging’ because they can help other ailments.

Dr Nighat, on ITV’s This Morning (25 January)

The way it seemed to be portrayed was that this was a cure for ME – something that was offered on such a prestigious show like Dragon’s Den such as ear seeds  – a lot of my patients contacted me off the back of that going, ‘is this something I can consider?’ … however there is no evidence-based data to suggest that ear seeds work.

Steve Topple, in the Canary (25 January):

Campaign group the Chronic Collaboration did what used to be called a Twitter storm, on Wednesday 24 January at 8pm. Using the hashtag #DragonsDenConnedME, people were tweeting at @Ofcom, telling it to investigate the Dragon’s Den episode. Now, the Canary has got involved. We are supporting the Chronic Collaboration, and the ME community.

BBC news (27 January):

The BBC has edited an episode of Dragons’ Den following complaints about a wellness business it featured. A text statement is now displayed on screen while Ms Boxer is seen pitching her Acu Seed business. It reads:

“Acu Seeds are not intended as a cure for any medical condition and advice should always be sought from a qualified healthcare provider about any health concerns.”

The British Acupuncture Council in a statement (29 January):

At present, we are unaware of any clinical research that has evaluated ear seeds alone for CFS/ME… Ear seeds may be used as an adjunct to the acupuncture treatment. From a traditional acupuncture perspective the ear seeds need to be located precisely on specific points. Therefore, it is not possible to self-administer the ear seeds.

Dr Edzard Ernst, alternative medicine researcher, in Femail, reported in Daily Mail  (29 January):

‘To give severely suffering patients false hope is unethical; to take money from it is despicable, in my view.

‘I am disappointed that the BBC uses a light entertainment programme for misleading gullible consumers and desperate patients. I hope in future the BBC might do a minimum of research before broadcasting overt medical nonsense.’

Rebecca, a TikToker who shares videos about her ME, reported in Daily Mail (29 January):

‘As if it’s not bad enough she’s bragging about buying them for £3 and selling them for £30, with her gigantic gross and net margins, well it turns out she’s also selling people in her club snake oil’.

Lauren Clarke in Women’s health (31 January)

ME/ CFS upended my mum’s life at the age of 45, when I was 12 years old… In the two decades since, I’ve witnessed so much misunderstanding of ME/ CFS. ‘The cruel branding of ME/CFS as “mass hysteria” changed the course of my mum’s life forever’ ‘The Dragon’s Den debacle shows we urgently need more research into ME/CFS’

The Advertising Standards Authority, reported in the Mirror (31 January):

An entrepreneur on the show had “likely” broken advertising rules. Pro-science group The Good Thinking Society wrote to the ASA to complain about misleading claims on the Acu Seeds website.

Clare Norton, whose daughter Merryn Crofts died of ME/CFS aged 21 in 2017, in The Record (31 January):

Claims made by Ms Boxer entrench a ‘baked-in’ stigma around the heavily misunderstood and chronically underfunded disease. Clare warned the episode was “damaging” and said Ms Boxers claims play into a stigma her daughter faced.

She said: My heart sank when I saw it, because I knew it was going to be so harmful for the ME community. It still feels like we’re fighting that same old battle. Trying to convince people that this is a serious, debilitating illness that kills. And it’s not all in your head. If it was that easy to cure ME, nobody would be suffering from it.”

Dr Ben Miles, Physicist, Entrepreneur & Investor in a video podcast (31 January):

I wish she was pedaling something real that actually gave people hope and delivered on it. We desperately need more entrepreneurs solving the many problems that we have in this world and many more investors supporting game-changing Technologies. That’s what I wanted to see here. Steven and the dragons teaming up with the best and the brightest to build solutions that offered real hope. If we celebrate false Solutions and commoditize on that hope with no intention of actually delivering on it we aren’t deploying that incredibly privileged position and resource appropriately and in fact we are detracting attention from the real opportunities that could move the needle forward.

Dr Katherine Seton, researcher in The Conversation (2 February):

“the reality is that ME patients face a complex, long-term medical condition without hope of a quick recovery” “

ME patients are desperate for effective treatment, especially given the historic lack of health system support for the condition. A serious under-investment in rigorous biomedical research into ME has meant that the illness remains somewhat of a mystery. The absence of proven or effective treatments has created an environment allowing unproven treatment claims to thrive and potentially mislead vulnerable patients.

Dr Charlotte Blease in The Critic (3 February):

“Pseudoscience exacerbates the burden of disease – victims of ME deserve better than dopey Dragons and ear seeds”. ME has been “the subject of considerable naysaying, cynicism, and outright ridicule for decades.”

Sorrel Kinton in The Skeptic (7 February)

The choice for sufferers isn’t between proven, evidence-based medicine and alternative medicine, it’s between alternative medicine and nothing. As much as it feels like a betrayal for someone to win the crapshoot of recovery or extended remission and immediately turn around and try and profit off the people they left behind, it’s hard to fully blame them. I understand wanting to feel like you have the answer, like you have power over an illness that in your heart of hearts you know could creep back in at any time and destroy your life all over again.


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