Consumer Affairs Victoria is preparing to take legal action against fake cancer sufferer Belle Gibson following an in-depth investigation into alleged contraventions of Australian consumer law.
The case not only involves false statements in social media and duping followers with claims of donations to charity, but also the gullibility of her book publishers who never asked her to substantiate her claims.
The alleged contraventions relate to false claims by Gibson and her company (Inkerman Road Nominees, formerly known as Belle Gibson Pty Ltd, of which Annabelle Gibson is sole director), concerning her diagnosis with terminal brain cancer, her rejection of conventional cancer treatments in favour of natural remedies, and the donation of proceeds to various charities.
Media reports suggest she may be subject to fines of over $1 million.
Gibson became a celebrity when she claimed to have overcome malignant brain cancer with alternative treatments, meditation and herbalism. She chronicled her battle with cancer on a blog, The Whole Pantry, which spawned an app and recipe book of the same name.
The problem was that she never had cancer, and her thousands of followers had been duped.
Doubts about her claims had surfaced after she failed to deliver a promised $300,000 donation to charity based on her sales.
“None of it’s true”, Gibson eventually admitted to Australian Women’s Weekly magazine.
In what has been criticised as a plea for understanding, she told the magazine “I am still jumping between what I think I know and what is reality. I have lived it and I’m not really there yet.”
Others quickly distanced themselves from Gibson, including Penguin Australia, the publisher of her cookbook; Apple, which was to run her app on its new watch; and Elle magazine, which had named her “the most inspiring woman you’ve met this year”. (At time of writing, the app is still listed for sale on Google Play.)
Consumer Affairs Victoria director Simon Cohen said Penguin had willingly co-operated with a concurrent investigation that examined whether the company had also contravened the consumer law. The company has agreed to an enforceable undertaking acknowledging that it had not required Gibson to substantiate her claims prior to the book’s publication.
Included in the terms of the enforceable undertaking is that Penguin will make a $30,000 donation to the Victorian Consumer Law Fund.
Penguin must also enhance its compliance, education and training program with a specific focus on ensuring all claims about medical conditions are substantiated, and that statements about natural therapies are accompanied by a prominent warning notice.
“This is an important step in ensuring that consumers receive only verified information and are not deceived, particularly where serious matters of health and medical treatment are concerned,” Cohen said.
Inkerman is in liquidation, so Consumer Affairs Victoria has applied for leave to commence proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia.