Fake wellness blogger Belle Gibson has been ordered to pay a fine of $410,000 after being found guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct earlier this year.
The Federal Court in Melbourne found she misled her readers when she claimed her brain cancer was cured through alternative therapies and nutrition.
Ms Gibson made $420,000 after building a social media empire and releasing The Whole Pantry cookbook and app, based on the claims.
Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) launched an investigation, and in June 2016 brought a civil case against Ms Gibson and her company Inkerman Road Nominees, which has been shut down.
The court heard Ms Gibson made false claims about donating a large portion of her profits to charities.
In March, Federal Court Judge Debbie Mortimer upheld “most but not all” of CAV’s allegations against Ms Gibson.
Ms Gibson has been fined for five separate contraventions of the Australian Consumer Law Act.
The fine includes:
- $90,000 for failing to donate proceeds from the sale of The Whole Pantry app, as publicly advertised
- $50,000 for failing to donate proceeds from the launch of The Whole Pantry app
- $30,000 for failing to donate proceeds from a 2014 Mothers Day event
- $90,000 for failing to donate other company profits
- $150,000 for failing to donate 100 per cent of one week’s app sales to the family of Joshua Schwarz, a boy who had an inoperable brain tumour
Justice Mortimer described the failure to donate to the Schwarz family as the “most serious” contravention of the law.
“Ms Gibson expressly compared the terrible circumstances of young Joshua to her own, asserting she had the same kind of tumour as he did; a statement which was completely false, ” Justice Mortimer said.
Judge wants fine to be donated
Justice Mortimer said despite significant publicity surrounding Ms Gibson’s charitable pledges, she made only three donations totalling $10,800.
She said that if Ms Gibson managed to pay the fine, it would be good to see the money donated to those who had been falsely promised donations.
“In that way, some good might still come for the vulnerable people, and the organisations supporting them, which were indirectly drawn into this unconscionable sequence of events,” Justice Mortimer said.
She refused CAV’s request for the court to order Ms Gibson to pay for full-page apology advertisements in newspapers, saying most of Ms Gibson’s contravening conduct occurred on social media.
She said CAV could have instead asked the court to order Ms Gibson to undertake community service caring for people who really do have cancer, but it did not.
“It [would have been] more likely to have brought home to Ms Gibson the impact of her conduct, and its offensiveness to members of the Australian community who really are struggling with cancer and its effects,” Justice Mortimer wrote.
“Perhaps there were good reasons no such orders were sought. It is not possible to know.”
In April, Ms Gibson was ordered to pay $30,000 in prosecution costs after she was found guilty.
Ms Gibson was not in court for Thursday’s ruling and did not attend court hearings earlier in the year.
Justice Mortimer said Ms Gibson responded to an email from the court last night by saying: “Thank you for the update, much appreciated. Belle.”
She was critical of Ms Gibson’s absence from the proceedings, saying she had “elected not to take any responsibility for her conduct.”
“She has chosen not to explain her conduct. She has chosen not to apologise for it,” Justice Mortimer said.
“It appears she has put her own interests before those of anyone else.”
“If there is one theme or pattern which emerges through her conduct, it is her relentless obsession with herself and what best serves her interests.”
Last year, CAV took action against publisher Penguin, which paid Gibson for her book when it went on sale in mid 2013. The book was pulled from the shelves in March 2015.
The action was withdrawn just a few months later, but Penguin was fined $30,000 because it sold and promoted the book by “making false and misleading representations”.
Justice Mortimer noted that she was not asked to make any findings about the “efficacy or otherwise of the treatments publicised by Ms Gibson, including her so-called dietary advice”.
‘She carefully planned for this’
Cancer Council Victoria said the fine sent a strong message to those who preyed on vulnerable people by making misleading claims about cancer treatment.
“There have been several high-profile examples of unscrupulous providers charging vulnerable people large sums of money for unproven and even dangerous treatments,” council chief executive Todd Harper said.
“Our advice is to be wary of anyone who encourages you to eliminate many types of food or whole food groups from your diet.
“Always seek information from reputable sources and consult your doctor or dietitian first.”
Victorian Minister for Consumer Affairs Marlene Kairouz said Ms Gibson deserved the harsh penalty.
“I think she carefully planned for this,” Ms Kairouz said.
“She knew exactly what she was doing and thankfully there aren’t many people out there like Belle Gibson.”