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It’s time for pharmacies to stop selling sugar pills

Some of these products contain no medicine at all.

Some of these products contain no medicine at all.

Retail pharmacies have a sugar pill problem. Homeopathic “remedies” may look like conventional medicine when they’re stocked on pharmacy shelves, like the photo above. But unlike conventional medicine, homeopathic products don’t contain any “medicine” at all. They are effectively sugar pills – placebos. Not surprisingly, there is convincing evidence to show that homeopathy is useless as a medical treatment, and fundamentally incompatible with a scientific understanding of medicine, biochemistry and even physics. Questions have been raised about the ethics of selling homeopathy in pharmacies to consumers who may not realize what they’re buying. This growing practice is attracting sharp criticism from other health professions. So why do pharmacies sell them? And what will it take for pharmacies to change? (more…)

Posted in: Ethics, Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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This stimulant can kill, yet you can legally buy it online. Why?

Caffeine Powder

This stimulant drug is highly toxic and perfectly legal.

If there’s one thing that unites all countries and cultures, it’s our love of caffeine. Whether it’s coffee, tea or other foods, caffeine is the most widely consumed drug in the world — more than alcohol, and more than tobacco: 90% of adults worldwide consume caffeine daily. At doses found in food and beverages, the effects are predictable and the side effects are slight. But natural or not, caffeine is a drug; isolate the pure substance, and the risks change. It would be difficult for most people to drink 16 cups of coffee in a row, but that’s the equivalent of just one teaspoon of caffeine powder. If that doesn’t hospitalize you, a tablespoon of the powder will probably kill you. Yet despite the risks, there are no restrictions on the sale of caffeine powder. You can buy a 1kg bag for $35, which provides the caffeine of about 5,000 cups of coffee. Caffeine powder is freely available to buy because regulators treat it differently – not because of its inherent properties, but because it’s “natural” and sold as a dietary supplement rather than a drug. This is a regulatory double-standard that harms consumers. It’s leaving a body count. And it needs to change: (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Medicine doesn’t come from the hardware store: Don’t drink turpentine

This is not a health food. Don't drink it.

This is not a health food. Don’t drink it.

I enjoy feedback from readers. Yes, there’s the regular hate mail accusing me of being a Big Pharma Shill. But there’s the occasional appreciative comment from someone that found a post helpful or informative. The most gratifying feedback is when someone tells me that something I wrote led to a more informed health decision. Often it’s because I was able to answer a question that they couldn’t find a science-based answer to. I’ve answered thousands of questions in my pharmacy career, and have only blogged a handful of them (so far). One of my most fascinating experiences was a stint working evenings in a pharmacy that happened to have a large “natural” health focus. It’s there I began to scrutinize alternative medicine more closely, because it was virtually all the store sold. Homeopathy, ear candles, copper bracelets and salt lamps were all for sale. If it was unproven, proven ineffective, or defied some law of physics or chemistry, this pharmacy probably sold it. But the customers loved these products. I was dumbfounded. Some would buy dozens of supplements, costing hundreds dollars per month, on the advice of their naturopath, treating some vague or non-specific complaints. Others swore by homeopathic remedies, for themselves and their pets. It was common to meet people who were treating conditions that either didn’t exist, or hadn’t been properly diagnosed, like naturopath-diagnosed “food intolerances” or “hormone imbalances”. There were also the occasional “pH balancing” advocates that insisted I was misguided and uneducated for reassuring them that their body’s pH was just fine, despite what their urine test strips were telling them. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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Legislators want “pharmaceutical cost transparency”. Are they asking the wrong question?

Drug Costs

If science-based medicine is unaffordable, then your care won’t be science-based. Prescription drug costs are one of the biggest concerns in health care today. There seems to be no upper limit on prices, with some new treatments costing over $1,000 per day. The arrival of new drugs to treat (and cure) hepatitis C has created a perfect pharmaceutical storm: highly effective treatments, a large population of potential patients, and huge per-patient costs. It’s renewing the debate about whether important medical treatments are being priced out of the reach of the patients that need them. It’s not just hepatitis. Cancer drug costs are rising as well, driven by more patients and new drugs that in some cases are transforming our expectations about what cancer drugs can do. And while many of us rely on some form of drug insurance to protect us from high drug costs, insurers are struggling with balancing coverage and premiums: A report by Express Scripts paints a grim picture:

An estimated 576,000 Americans spent more than the median household income on prescription medications in 2014. This population of patients grew an astounding 63% from 2013. Further, the population of patients with costs of $100,000 or more nearly tripled during the same time period, to nearly 140,000 people. The total cost impact to payers from both patient populations is an unsustainable $52 billion a year.

This isn’t just an issue in the United States. Prescription drug costs are climbing around the world, because we’re effectively all in this together: We all rely on private companies to bring new drugs to market, and we’re largely buying the same drugs from the same small group of companies. Because ready access to safe and effective prescription drugs is so important to the practice of medicine and the delivery of health care, the pharmaceutical industry is heavily regulated – not just by the FDA, but by regulators worldwide. Yet despite the dual requirements of regulatory disclosure and the financial obligation to be transparent (as many pharmaceutical companies are publicly-held), little is known about how much it costs to bring drugs to market, and how manufacturers arrive at their selling prices. Pharmaceutical manufacturers claim that high drug costs reflect the high costs of research and development (R&D), and provide the incentives for companies to invest heavily and take risks, when many drugs may never make it to market. Are they correct? (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Activated charcoal: The latest detox fad in an obsessive food culture

charcoal lemonade2Our diet is either the cause of, or solution to, all of life’s problems. I’m paraphrasing a great philosopher. We just can’t seem to let food be food. Today each ingredient we eat seems to be demonized or glorified. Gluten is the latest evil. It used to be fat. At some point in the past, it was MSG. Or it’s a superfood, preferably local, organic and GMO-free. Even on the healthiest diet, however, we’re apparently still ingesting too many harmful chemicals. After all, this is apparently a toxic environment we live in. Gwyneth Paltrow says so. So does the Food Babe. In an era of daily television quackery and loony internet health conspiracy websites, one might think that bizarre food ideas are a recent phenomena. But worries that we’re being poisoned from within are probably innate. One of the oldest surviving written documents is an Egyptian papyrus from the 16th century BCE that linked the cause of disease to digestive wastes in our colon. Since that time, our scientific knowledge about the cause of disease has advanced, but the underlying obsession with diet and elimination hasn’t waned. Anecdotally, it seems to be growing. The idea that our bodies need to “detox” is thriving, despite the fact that it has no scientific basis or validity. Part of the modern appeal of “detox” may be that detoxification is a legitimate medical term and treatment. However, in the alternative-to-health perspective, the word has been co-opted, but the science part has been ignored. Fake “detox” is easy. And now proponents of “detox” have taken it one step further. They’re using real medicine for a fake “detox” with. That’s how activated charcoal has become the latest health fad. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Less benefit, more risk. Our assumptions about health treatments are probably wrong.

Patient discussing treatment options with a pharmacist.

Patient discussing treatment options with a pharmacist.

I’m a health professional, but sometimes a patient as well. And like most patients, I generally don’t want health decisions being made without my input. Yes, I want the best medical information, and the advice of medical professionals, but ultimately I want to make my own decisions about my care. That’s the norm in health care today, but relatively new in the history of medicine.

Medical paternalism, where patient preferences are secondary (or even ignored), is disappearing. Even informed consent, where patients are given information on risks and benefits, doesn’t adequately describe the drive towards a two-way exchange, with an empowered, engaged patient. Today the goal is shared decision making, which describes a mutual decision that is informed by a health professional’s medical knowledge and advice, but also incorporates a patient’s own preferences and wishes. Truly shared decision-making includes an explicit consideration of a treatment’s expected benefits and potential harms, yet reflects patient values.

Screening is a textbook example of why shared decision-making should be our goal. Given the benefits of a disease screening program may be modest, and not without harms, understanding and incorporating individual preference is essential. Some may value the small but incremental benefits of screening, and choose to be screened despite the risks of false positives, investigations, and possible overtreatment. Given the exact same circumstances, another individual may opt to forgo screening, making a different, yet equally acceptable decision. While there are some health interventions for which the benefits are unequivocal, and others for which the harms are just as clear, most health treatments (and interventions like screening) have both benefits and potential harms that must be carefully assessed within the context of patient preferences. Research published earlier this year has identified a significant barrier to truly effective shared decision-making and risk assessment: Across a wide range of interventions, we routinely overestimate the benefits of health treatments, and underestimate their risks. (more…)

Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Supplements are the Wild West of health. One Attorney General is out to change that.


Bold moves from the New York State attorney general’s (AG) office are shaking up the supplement industry. In February, the AG accused four retailers (GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens) of selling supplements that failed to contain their labelled ingredients. Using a testing method called “DNA barcoding“, the AG’s office concluded that few of the products it tested actually contained the labelled ingredient, and some contained undisclosed ingredients. It demanded that they stop the sale of those products. All four retailers complied.

When the recall occurred, I noted that the AG may not have had an airtight case: manufacturers and other critics challenged the AG’s methodology, claiming that DNA barcoding was unvalidated, inappropriate, and insufficient. They also stated that the DNA may not survive processing, so the absence of DNA didn’t imply a lack of the original product. Some claimed that the “contaminants” that AG found could have been acceptable fillers. The Attorney General refused to release further information about the testing methods it used, raising further questions about its validity. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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Should the FDA crack down on homeopathic “remedies”?

In the category of potentially dangerous complementary or alternative medicine, I can think of few products worse than ones claimed to relieve asthma, yet don’t actually contain any medicine. Yet these products exist and are widely sold. Just over a year ago I described what might be the most irresponsible homeopathic treatment ever: A homeopathic asthma spray. If there was ever a complementary or alternative product that could cause serious harm, this is it:


Photo Credit Ryan Meylon


Among the different treatments and remedies that are considered “alternative” medicine, homeopathy is the most implausible of all. Homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system, where the “remedies” lack any actual medicine. Based on the idea that “like cures like” (which is sympathetic magic, not science), proponents of homeopathy believe that any substance can be an effective remedy if it’s diluted enough: cancer, boar testicles, crude oil, oxygen, and skim milk are all homeopathic “remedies”. (I think Berlin Wall may be my favorite, though vacuum cleaner dust is a runner-up). The dilution in the case of homeopathy is so significant that there’s mathematically no possibility of even a trace of the original ingredient in the typical remedy – they are chemically indistinguishable from a placebo. To homeopaths, this is a good thing, as dilution is claimed to make the medicine-free “remedy” more potent, not less. As would be expected with inert products, rigorous clinical trials confirm what basic science (and math) predicts: homeopathy’s effects are placebo effects. Recently Steven Novella blogged about the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) comprehensive report on homeopathy which concluded the following: (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Evaluating milk and its substitutes


“Milk” at my local grocery store

I knew milk alternatives were becoming mainstream when a new bakery/café appeared in my neighborhood. I ordered a latte and learned that they didn’t use milk. At all. Not only were the baked goods vegan, organic, “natural” and some were gluten-free, they were completely dairy-free for their coffee beverages. While everything looked and smelled great, I was shocked that they had no milk on the premises. The milk alternative made with soy didn’t taste bad, but it didn’t taste like milk. I left with my coffee, wondering how long the place would survive. I was wrong. It’s been a few years and the shop is still here, suggesting there’s a sizable appetite (at least in my laid-back, coffee-shop-saturated neighborhood) for milk-free, wheat-free vegan food and drinks. I shouldn’t be surprised. The number of people on restricted diets seems to be growing, and so have the food choices to meet their dietary demands. There have always been people that avoided milk, but the reason was traditionally lactose intolerance or dairy allergies. Now more are simply choosing to avoid it. I’m often asked about the merits of milk and the multiple milk alternatives, as the assessments of dairy seems to take one of two positions: Either milk is the dietary equivalent of unicorn tears, a nearly perfect food, or it is poison that’s almost certainly killing us. What’s clear is that we have more choice than ever for milk-like beverages. My local grocery is pictured above, where cow’s milk is just one small section. Who knew you could milk cashews? (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition

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Pseudoscience North: What’s happening to the University of Toronto?

Trojan Rabbit


Today’s post is a reluctant challenge. I’m nominating my own alma mater, the University of Toronto, as the new pseudoscience leader among large universities – not just in Canada, but all of North America. If you can identify a large university promoting or embracing more scientifically questionable activities, I’ll happily buy you a coffee. Yes, it’s personal to me, as I have two degrees from U of T. But I’m more concerned about the precedent. If Canada’s largest university is making decisions that appear to lack a careful consideration of the scientific evidence, then what does that suggest about the scientific standards for universities in Canada? (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Vaccines

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