Bloggers beware of state laws against unlicensed practices

Los Angeles Times

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 21 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The following editorial appeared recently in the Los Angeles Times:

The world is awash in diet and weight-loss advice disseminated on the Internet and TV and in books, magazines and Weight Watchers meetings. So Steve Cooksey's website hardly seems out of the ordinary. The food plan helped Cooksey lose 78 pounds and, he says, control his diabetes without medication.

Yet, the North Carolina-based blogger was flagged by a regulatory board in that state for answering readers' specific queries in a Dear Abby-style column and offering life coaching for a fee. North Carolina, like many other states, does not allow anyone to dispense nutritional advice — free or for pay — without a license. In California, by comparison, a person who wants to call himself a dietitian needs to register as such and receive a credential from a professional board. But anyone is free to be a nutrition counselor, without a license, and offer advice.

Cooksey voluntarily removed the offending parts of his website and then filed a lawsuit, arguing that the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition had infringed his right to free speech. He said he altered the website only because he feared civil or criminal action by the state. Board officials, on the other hand, said they were only following state law.

Cooksey's case will be decided under North Carolina law, and won't have many ramifications outside the state. The issues surrounding it, however, may offer lawmakers some guidance. Smart oversight in this area requires balancing free speech and consumer protection. And resolving that tension means recognizing that there is a difference between casual and commercial advice, and that those who offer themselves as advisors may subject themselves to greater regulation than those who merely describe their own experiences.

In California, as long as Cooksey didn't call himself a registered dietitian — a disclaimer on his website states that he is a layperson — he could have legally done all the advising that got him in trouble in North Carolina. But with varying state laws and the proliferation of bloggers and chatters providing diet and health counsel, the best advice may be: Advice-seeker, beware.

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