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Is it ethical to sell complementary and alternative medicine?

Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?

Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is no longer fringe, and anything but the mom-and-pop image that manufacturers carefully craft. CAM is big business, and most Americans today take some sort of supplement. The impetus for my blogging (and tilting at CAM windmills) emerged from years spent working in a pharmacy with a heavy reliance on CAM sales. If it was unorthodox, this store probably sold it. Conventional drug products (the ones I was familiar with) were hidden off in a corner, and the store was otherwise crowded with herbal remedies, homeopathy, and different forms of detox kits and candida cleanses. All of this was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard about in pharmacy school – so I started researching.

I looked at CAM from a scientific evidence perspective, the one I was taught in pharmacy school, using the same approach I’d take when assessing a new drug. Did the evidence support the claims made about these products, or not? The answers, as you might expect, were often the same. There was little or no credible evidence to demonstrate CAM had any meaningful benefits. I started blogging my own reviews as a way of documenting my own research, while offering some information to anyone on the Interwebs who might be searching for evidence.

Over time my blogging focus expanded, as I asked myself the inevitable questions: How could implausible products with no scientific backing even be approved for sale at all? I discovered the regulatory double-standard allowed for anything considered a dietary supplement (or in Canada, a “natural health product“) and the history and politics that have made CAM the “Wild West” of health care, with a marketplace that prioritizes a manufacturer’s right to sell over a consumer’s right to purchase a product that is safe and effective. Given the retail marketplace that’s been established by regulators like the FDA and Health Canada, I’ve turned my focus on to health professionals, who have an ethical responsibility to put patient interests above that of commercial interests. From a professional practice and medical ethics perspective, I have argued that health professionals that sell or promote CAM are on ethically shaky ground, and compromise the credibility of the profession.

Despite the lack of evidence that CAM (in general) offers any health benefits at all, it’s been remarkable to watch its popularity grow, to the point where even large pharmacy chains now sell aisles of products that are implausible and often highly questionable. Generally meeting these changes with a collective shrug, the pharmacy profession has even tried to lower its own ethical standards. While I do get the occasional encouragement from some of my peers, most just say “it’s business” or “the customer wants it, and these are legal products.” My argument today is CAM fails even this lower ethical bar. (more…)

Posted in: Ethics, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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Puritan’s Pride Vitamin Advisor Gives Questionable Advice

puritan's
The Puritan’s Pride website has a Vitamin Advisor that claims to provide a personalized supplement plan, with expert recommendations chosen just for you. In my opinion it is deceptive, designed not to provide evidence-based personalized health advice, but to sell their products; and one can only wonder what kind of “experts” would support such ill-advised recommendations. Stephen Barrett and I have just co-authored an article on the Quackwatch site analyzing the Vitamin Advisor’s advice. I wanted to share what we found with our SBM readers, with some further comments.

Their recommendations are based on a series of questions like age, sex, health concerns, whether you are exposed to cigarette smoke, etc. The full list can be found in our Quackwatch article. The one-size-fits-all questions are useless because “eye concerns” might mean anything from needing glasses to glaucoma. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Prenatal Multivitamins and Iron: Not Evidence-Based

prenatal-vitamins small
When I was pregnant, I obediently took the iron pills and prenatal vitamins prescribed by my obstetrician. And I prescribed them for every pregnant patient I took care of as a family physician. I never questioned the practice. It seemed intuitively obvious that it was a good thing; we know pregnancy makes extra nutritional demands and depletes iron stores. It never occurred to me to question what I had been taught, because it seemed perfectly logical. I did question other things I was taught that didn’t seem so logical. In my internship, we were ordered to do episiotomies on every patient (the rationale was that it made birth less traumatic for the baby and prevented uncontrolled perineal tearing in the mother). I was severely chastised for omitting an episiotomy on a patient who begged me not to do one. She had had several babies and was stretchy enough to deliver easily without an episiotomy. In this case, my common-sense clinical judgment was vindicated by further research in the years after my internship; new evidence showed that routine episiotomies were of no benefit, practice changed in response to the new evidence, and episiotomies are no longer done routinely.

That was a long time ago. I have long since learned that even the most reasonable assumptions can be wrong. I happened to be right about episiotomies, but I might just as well have been wrong; and the only way to know whether a belief is true is to test it in controlled scientific trials. As Will Rogers said, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” It turns out that routine multivitamin and iron supplementation is not supported by any convincing evidence from scientific studies. And practice is changing. Recently, when one woman asked her OB what she should do about prenatal vitamins he pulled his wastebasket out from under his desk and said “put them there.” (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Obstetrics & gynecology

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The consumer lab rat: More questions about supplement safety

Laboratory Rats
Do you take a vitamin or dietary supplement? Over half of all American adults do, making this a $30 billion dollar business. Many of us even take supplements in the absence of any clear medical or health need. I’m often told it’s a form of nutritional “insurance” or it’s being taken for some presumed beneficial effect – like Steven Novella outlined in yesterday’s post on antioxidants. We love the idea of a risk-free magic bullet that improves our health and wellness. Especially one that avoids what are presumed to be toxic, unnatural drugs. Supplements are marketed as safe, natural and effective, and there is no question that messaging has been effective.

I used to take supplements. For me it was multivitamins. But as I’ve taken a closer look at the evidence for supplementation, my personal behaviors changed. The primary reason is a lack of evidence. There is no evidence to suggest that vitamins offer any health benefits in the absence of deficiency. The balance of evidence suggests that routine multivitamins are unnecessary for most people. Vitamins should come from your food, not from supplements. More generally, looking at the broader category of supplements that range from probiotics to herbal remedies, there is little evidence to support most of them. With a few exceptions, the research done on dietary supplements is unconvincing and largely negative. If you don’t supplement, you don’t seem to be missing out on any tremendous health benefits.

Going beyond the lack of evidence, there’s an even more compelling need for consumers to be wary of them. The safety of supplements is increasingly being called into question. Evidence has emerged demonstrating that quality standards for supplements sold in many countries are erratic and unpredictable. The root cause seems to be regulatory systems that prioritize manufacturer interests ahead of consumer protection. With supplements, products are effectively being tested for safety after they are marketed, and the consumer is the unwitting research subject. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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More Trouble for Antioxidants

Antioxidants are better acquired through food than pills.

Antioxidants are better-acquired through food than pills.

Antioxidants are now an iconic example of premature hype making its way into marketing and the public consciousness long before the science is adequately understood. There are multiple lessons to be learned in this story, and a new study just emphasizes those lessons further.

A brief history of antioxidants

One of the unavoidable consequences of metabolism (burning food for energy) is the creation of oxygen free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS). These are molecules that are highly reactive. They essentially contain oxygen with an extra electron, which can react with another molecule, breaking bonds and causing damage.

As you might expect, the body has natural antioxidants which react with ROS to form benign molecules.

In the 1990s it became increasingly apparent that oxidative stress was playing an important role in cell damage, even sometimes triggering apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Many degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease, were shown to be driven in part by oxidative stress. In addition, it seemed that ROS play a role in aging.

(more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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Legislative Alchemy 2015: Another losing season for CAM practitioners

legislative-alchemy-image
One of the main, but perhaps underappreciated, reasons quackery thrives in the United States is that the states legalize it by licensing practitioners of pseudoscience as health care providers. These practitioners are placed under the regulatory jurisdiction of, well, themselves. I call the whole deplorable process Legislative Alchemy, and you can see all posts on the topic here. It gives practitioners an underserved imprimatur of state authority and leaves public protection from harmful practices to the oversight of those who are themselves engaging in the very same conduct. Each year, dozens of bills are brought before the state legislatures to establish initial licensure or, once that goal is achieved, scope of practice expansion.

Most attempts fail, but CAM practitioners are a dogged bunch, and they will come back each year until they get what they want. It took chiropractors about 60 years to become licensed in all 50 states. Acupuncturists are almost there. Naturopaths lag far behind, but are slowly gaining ground each year, even if it is only via practice expansion in states where they are already licensed. 2015 was a losing season for all, but not without advancement toward larger goals.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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The one thing you need to know before you detox

detox will to live small

New Year, New You, right? Here’s a perennially popular post, revised for 2016.

With 2016 upon us, it’s finally time get serious about your health. You’re resolving to eat better and exercise more. But first, you need to reset your body – and purge yourself of all of your lifestyle and dietary overindulgences. But how? The options seem limitless, and everyone has advice: There’s Dr. Oz, Gwyneth, and even your favourite Kardashian has advice: They’re all telling you how it’s essential to “detox”, “cleanse” and “flush” away all of your toxins. Your local pharmacy has an ever-growing section of products promising a newer, more pure you: supplements, homeopathy, ear candles, and an entire aisle of “detox kits” all promise to suck toxins out of your body. Don’t forget your local naturopath who sells IV vitamin drips as the detoxification solution to your problems. The approaches may differ but all the advocates are completely convinced of one fact: Detoxing will deliver a renewed body and better health. Not only will you look better, you’ll feel better. It is a new year. Wouldn’t a purification from last year’s habits (dietary and otherwise) of last year be the best way to start? Well before you pull out your credit card, there is one fact that “detox” advocates are reluctant to tell you. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy, Nutrition

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Guess who pioneered chemoprevention through diet?

Listen to your science: Eat your vegetables.

This is an expansion of a post I did over on the Society for Science-Based Medicine blog about this time last year. The original post, which got far more traffic than is usual for the SFSBM, is a good example of how science works and the good that it can do. The hard work of real science illustrated here serves as a striking counterpoint to the slap-dash system of pseudoscience, which churns out fake diseases, causes, and cures by the dozen based on a fuzzy understanding of real science fueled by a healthy dose of imagination.

Naturopaths and “functional medicine” practitioners would have the public believe that they are the true experts on nutrition and health. Even though their nutritional advice contains a large serving of hooey and a big helping of dietary supplements, which they are happy to sell to patients.

So it was with great interest that I read the obituary of Dr. Lee Wattenberg in the New York Times.

Dr. Wattenberg published a landmark paper in the journal Cancer Research that reviewed 36 years of animal studies on the effects that certain compounds had on the development of cancer. The paper laid the framework for understanding how these compounds work. . . .

He showed that cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli inhibit the development of carcinogens. He isolated a compound in garlic that decreased “by a factor of three” the chances that animals injected with cancer agents would develop that cancer. He found two chemicals in coffee that neutralize free radicals, which are harmful chemicals commonly implicated in the onset of cancer.

(more…)

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

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What’s in your Traditional Chinese Medicine?

A study found 92% of Traditional Chinese Medicine was contaminated with drugs, heavy metals, or animals including cat, dog, rat and pit viper.

An analysis of 26 Traditional Chinese Medicine products found 92% were contaminated with pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, or the DNA of animals, including traces of cat, dog, rat, or pit viper.

Two weeks ago I detailed the pervasive problem of poor quality supplements. The main reason for this seems to be weak regulatory standards that prioritize the rights of manufacturers to sell supplements over the rights of consumers to buy safe, high quality, properly-labelled products. Call it “health freedom“, where the freedom belongs to producers, who in many countries are largely freed from most of the quality and safety regulations that are in place for licensed prescription and non-prescription pharmaceuticals. The result of weak regulation is that few supplements sold on the market today have been properly tested for safety or effectiveness, and there are few quality standards for the production of these products.

Not surprisingly, there are persistent signs that consumers may face real risks to their health from using these products. Now a new study from Australia confirms what past studies have already shown: adulterated and contaminated herbal remedies are the rule, rather than the exception. They often contain undeclared ingredients ranging from potential allergens to heavy metals to endangered species. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Holding the supplement industry to account: Can we learn from tobacco regulation?

When it comes to supplements, you can't trust what's on the label

When it comes to supplements, you can’t trust what’s on the label

The idea that “natural” products are safe and effective has been so effectively marketed to us that many don’t recognize it as a fallacy. Much of the supplement industry is built around an appeal to nature. Supplements are described as natural, gentle, and “holistic”. Medicine, especially prescription drugs, is the opposite. They’re “chemicals”. They’re risky and dangerous – just look at that list of side effects! Supplements are packaged beautifully, have impressive claims, and are for sale at Whole Foods. Drugs are hazardous: They may come in a plain vial, with warning labels, detailed information sheets, and cautious statements about their effectiveness. Is it any wonder that many consumers, when faced with health concerns or medical issues, instinctively think of supplements as a safer alternative? Purveyors of supplements and alternative medicine have leveraged this fallacy so effectively that it’s even guided the regulations that allow their sale. Regrettably, the result is a marketplace that puts consumers’ interests last. The supplement industry has completely stacked the odds against the consumer, challenging their ability to make informed decisions about their health. Most supplements on the market have never been properly tested for safety or effectiveness. And those that have been tested have largely been shown to be ineffective – or in the case of products like vitamins, often unnecessary. And while there are undoubtedly some ethical companies out there, the industry is regularly revealed to resemble a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Despite this, the industry has gone from success to success – in terms of sales, at least. In 1994 supplement sales were about $4 billion in the US. It’s now a $37 billion industry that is remains only lightly regulated – or largely unregulated. With recent action taken against fraudulent products, there are more questions than ever about how to force the supplement industry to make consumer protection a priority. A new paper in Drug Testing and Analysis makes a provocative suggestion: Local and state governments already regulate another hazardous product: tobacco. Can lessons learned from the tobacco wars improve the safety of supplements? (more…)

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

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