Google pulls addiction help service ads in UK after Sunday Times investigation: 6 things to know

An undercover investigation by The Sunday Times discovered Google has been profiting off of an arrangement in which referral agents in the U.K. pay a fee to advertise themselves on the search engine as free addiction advice helplines, but, unbeknownst to patients, receive a commission each time they refer an individual to a select treatment facility.

Here are six things to know about the investigation.

1. During the investigation, undercover reporters from The Sunday Times met with executives from two U.K. referral agencies. The reporters learned these referral agents advertise themselves as free addiction service helplines on Google, but often do not disclose that they are compensated by the rehabilitation clinics they refer patients to.

2. These referral agencies exist, in part, because the U.K. National Health Service has recently faced significant cuts to its various programs, including addiction treatment services, forcing people to seek care for those conditions elsewhere.

3. Daniel Gerrard, head of the London-based referral agency Addiction Helper, told reporters he spends £350,000 (roughly $473,000) per month to ensure his agency is the first organization advertised on Google. He also said he operates 300 other websites that appear when an individual searches other addiction-related terms in the search engine.

4. Mr. Gerrard told reporters his staff have been instructed to tell healthcare officials they are paid by the clinics, but are not to reveal the exact amount.

5. Reporters learned Google charges U.K. referral agencies approximately £200 (roughly $270) each time someone accesses one of their websites. Google does not charge referral agents in the U.S. because the practice is banned in several states, according to the report. The arrangement is not illegal in the U.K.

6. Following The Sunday Times investigation, Google removed all advertisements related to addiction treatment from all of its platforms in the U.K. A spokesperson for the company told the publication, "We work to help healthcare providers — from doctors to hospitals and treatment centres — get online and connect with people who need their help. … In the U.S., we restricted ads entirely in this [substance abuse] category and we have decided to extend this to the U.K. as we consult with local experts to update our policy and find a better way to connect those that need help with the treatment they need."

To read the full Sunday Times investigation, click here.

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