Death by ‘Slapping Therapy’. The role of the NICM, and others, in this tragedy.

It is always a terrible day when children die at the hands of fake medical practitioners or pseudoscientists. It is so unnecessary and preventable, and yet, it happens every day everywhere around the world. The proverbial snake-oil salesman is not a new phenomenon, it has always been with us, but it is becoming a global epidemic since some universities decided to elevate this type of quackery, to become state-funded and university-supported quackery. This turn of events lends undue credibility and legitimacy to these ineffective and dangerous ‘treatments’ and this translates into more people being fooled, while the snake-oil salesmen and those universities stand to make more money. It is always about money! But let’s have a look at how it works with the following tragic example, followed by some suggestions as to what you can do to help prevent these things from happening.

The controversial ‘Slapping Therapy’

This example involves a complementary therapy within the realm of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), called ‘slapping therapy’ or ‘Paidalajin’. A 6yo boy suffering from type-1 diabetes attended a slapping therapy workshop in Sydney with his parents, but sadly, the boy died in his hotel room shortly afterwards. Although the case is still before the courts, it is believed that he was deprived of medication and food during the workshop. The parents and grandmother have been arrested and faces manslaughter charges while the TCM practitioner, Hongchi Xiao, was only quite recently extradited from the UK, where another person died at one of his workshops. He was not granted bail and faces a maximum sentence of 25 years imprisonment.

But what is this ‘slapping therapy’, and why is it called controversial? It involves the flow of ‘energy’ or a ‘life force’ (chi) through channels (meridians) and by slapping yourself, or being slapped by someone else, you restore the flow of chi and your body starts to expel ‘toxins’. These toxins become visible when your skin turns red, and I guess, purple and blue, depending on how hard you are being hit. The theory was, therefore, that by slapping this boy he would be cured from diabetes, and this belief is so strong, that he was also taken off his medication – a life threatening scenario. But what does science say? Chi does not exist, meridians do not exist, diabetes cannot be cured and especially not by slapping, and the so-called toxins that your body expel are called bruising (the slapping injury causes tiny blood vessels to burst and the blood gets trapped below the skin’s surface, which causes a bruise). Just imagine how many people get hurt or die, due to TCM practitioners using chi, meridians etc. to diagnose and treat disease. Because it does not exist, they cannot really diagnose anything, and hence cannot effectively treat anything!

Here is a photo of the type of bruising that you can expect, posted as a testimonial from a cancer sufferer and devout follower of Master Xiao (I always wonder how many of these testimonials are real). In addition, if you hit a young child to a point of severe bruising it is called child abuse, but in the pseudoscientific world it is apparently called ‘self-healing’.

All of TCM is controversial, or none of it is!

If you promote TCM, in whatever shape or form, you also promote its underlying pseudoscientific principles. Let’s look at acupuncture; You insert needles at specific points (acupoints) that supposedly manipulate the flow of chi through meridians – and this, according to practitioners, cures disease! This acupuncturist (at Western Sydney University – WSU) recently published a case study where she reported that her patient did not recover after receiving an acupuncture treatment. What was her conclusion? “Despite this, I found that my confidence was undermined by being out of touch with my own inner knowing or Yi.” So, what is Yi? It is your intent (yi 意 ), and when your intentions (to cure disease) becomes permanent, then it becomes your will (zhi 志 ). In other words, acupuncture works and nobody should argue with that, the problem, this time, was that her intention for it to work were insufficient. Solution: believe more deeply!  And to think that this was part of the ‘science’ that was reviewed by the Australian Research Council in their Excellence of Research for Australia scheme, which they rewarded with the highest possible ranking (5) “evidence of outstanding performance well above world standard (something is rotten, but more about this in a next article).

But the same goes for herbal TCM, which also aims to manipulate the flow of chi through meridians. As described by ‘Prof’ Alan Bensoussan (director of the NICM at WSU) in a radio interview; “The first patient would receive acupunctural herbs that disperse the accumulation of energy, the second patient would receive acupunctural herbs that strengthen and tonify the low back. It’s a tool like this concept of circulation of energy, that actually allows the Chinese Medicine practitioner to distinguish these patients, and allows the Chinese Medicine practitioner to treat the patients in a way that the patient themselves may understand better,”.

Disease is therefore seen as an imbalance of a non-existent energy that flows through non-existent meridians, and the ‘slapping therapist’ makes use of these ‘fake’ principles to mislead people. In their strange world, bacteria, viruses, pancreatic cells secreting insulin etc. do not exist, but rather disease is caused by your chi clogging your meridians and hence slapping yourself, or inserting needles, or taking herbs, will unclog your meridians and you will be cured of whatever ailment you might suffer from. They are continuing, to this day, to promote these false and dangerous ideas to the Australian public. And again, it is dangerous because if you cannot diagnose a disease, you cannot effectively treat it. Any successful TCM treatment (some herbs might be effective) is therefore purely based on luck. Ever wondered why a TCM practitioner will prescribe a patient a combination of 10-20 different herbs? Because it improves their chances of getting lucky, but also amplifies the many risks, 20-fold.

This is why scientists call TCM, and the many other forms of complementary medicine, belief-based healthcare systems. You only have to believe hard enough that it works and that’s it, there are more than enough gullible people who will fall for your trickery. Sure, you get true believers (delusional) and unscrupulous people (criminals) that only make as if they belief, for the sake of misleading you and to make money out of you. If you fall for them, then, unfortunately, you are on your own. Master Xiao’s comments after his arrest? “This has nothing to do with the workshop. This boy had a lot of diseases, more than we ever know.” It is never their fault.

But now a very unfortunate death has occurred, which means that many of the important role players in this tragedy will disavow the slapping therapy ‘treatment’ in order to absolve themselves of responsibility and to stay out of the news. They do not accept any negative reports because it tends to clash with their Yi and Zhi. And hence they continue to promote acupuncture and TCM, even though many deaths have occurred as a direct result of acupuncture and even more due to herbal TCM remedies. And to think that most deaths, by far, occur as an indirect result after using these pseudoscientific therapies by neglecting a treatable or manageable medical condition, such as malaria or diabetes. The total number of deaths? Nobody knows.

Either all of the above therapies and treatments are controversial and should be stopped, or none of it is. I am fully supportive of the former, but those ‘open-minded’ people whose brains have fallen out, albeit delusional or criminal people, will obviously choose the latter and they will continue to make money out of the misfortunes of others. And with the current support of some universities, this problem will only get bigger.

Who is now really to blame for these tragic events? The role of Tasly Healthpac and the NICM.

No real doctor or scientist or any decent person with ethics and morals would allow a slapping therapist to give a workshop on their premises. Especially not to children suffering from serious medical conditions. What you should do, especially if you are an evidence-based healthcare practitioner, is to explain to this person that what he does is dangerous and that he should please stop doing it. And then you report him to the police. But this did not happen. So, the workshop was held at the ‘Tasly Healthpac Centre of Excellence in Integrative Medicine’. According to a Tasly spokesperson, the slapping therapist “Mr Xiao rented a room from our centre to conduct what was described to us as a series of health seminars. The boy and his mother were participants in the seminar.” Apparently, they did not know about the slapping therapy, but is this true?

It is telling that Tasly have deleted their website or they have changed their name to Medicentral, where they continue to provide TCM and acupuncture alongside conventional treatments. No information can be found on their new website regarding the workshop, but from the internet archives, it is clear that they themselves advertised this workshop. Their old website received up to 538 daily visitors, and hence their marketing efforts via their website reached many people in Australia (I would not be surprised if the parents of the deceased became aware of this workshop via Tasly’s website). On Master Xiao’s website he also states that his workshop was co-organised by an Australian medical institution. Therefore, Tasly’s statement is false. Slapping, acupuncture, herbal TCM – it is all the same thing, and that is why they allowed this workshop to be held on their premises.

A key person at Tasly is the founder, Dr Ven Tan, who started the practice more than 20 years ago and ‘through his own practice he has come to realise the limitations of conventional Western medicine and to worship the merit of Traditional Chinese Medicine’. Having a well-established practice and making statements such as above will draw the attention of pseudoscientists at some Australian Universities. WSU in Sydney (and they are by no means the only Australian university who have decided to put money before science and ethics) used public money to convert TCM practitioners into ‘Professors’ and hence, it is to be expected that they will seek funding from, or collaborate with Tasly in exchange for providing extra credibility and legitimacy for Tasly’s pseudoscientific services. ‘Integrating’ TCM with conventional therapies, with the involvement of WSU, creates trust and a sense of security in patients that all of the provided services at Tasly’s are underpinned by science, and thus more and more people will be misled.

Here (second photo on the left) is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Chinese and Australian governments ‘aimed at promoting TCM in Australia through a collaborative initiative’ witnessed by Dr Ven Tan (Tasly) and Prof Alan Bensoussan (NICM at WSU). Another MoU was signed between Tasly and the NICM in 2011 which states that the NICM will provide “Assistance in the development of an Integrative Care Model: to assist the Tasly Healthpac Centre of Excellence in Integrative medicine so that its structure aims to integrate TCM and western medical diagnostics and treatments in an integrated, patient centred way.” The result of doing just that, speaks tragically for itself.

It is well known that the Chinese government wants to internationalise TCM, it is, after all, a $170 billion industry. An excellent article about this issue, a real eye-opener, was recently published in the Economist “State-funded Quackery. China is ramping up its promotion of its ancient medical arts. That is dangerous for humans as well as rhinos.” The NICM has played a crucial role in the national registration of TCM practitioners in 2012, which elevated TCM to the same level as conventional healthcare, lending undue credibility to TCM. This extra legitimacy was used by the NICM to facilitate China’s plans for internationalisation of TCM via Australia. They lobbied various Ministers and managed to get TCM into the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement in 2015, shortly after the boy’s death from slapping. In 2016 a trade delegation of the Minister of Health (Jillian Skinner – now retired) visited China, accompanied by Dr Ven Tan and Prof Alan Bensoussan. Part of the mission was “To assist the University of Western Sydney’s National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) secure investor and donor support for the NICM’s integrative Chinese medicine facility medicine/treatment on the Westmead Campus“.

Yes, they are building a large integrative TCM facility in Sydney, which will open in 2018. They will obviously sell this as a ‘research’ facility, but in truth, it will be operated like a commercial facility. All of this is good news for China, Tasly and the NICM, but it is definitely not good news for the Australian public.

Tasly and NICM should therefore also be held responsible for these tragic events.

The role of the regulator, the TGA, and the NICM’s influence

In Australia, this very important function to protect the public against the sort of quackery described above, is being done by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Pseudoscientists also know that the TGA is a potential key hurdle that must be overcome. They therefore lobby intensely, and some infiltrate the TGA (Alan Bensoussan has served many years on the TGA panel for complementary medicines), where they actually managed to get the job done. Even though the golden rule is that you really do not need to be a pseudoscientist in order to know what pseudoscience is, or to adequately regulate it. And yet, there are a number of TCM practitioners currently involved with regulating TCM at the TGA.

The NICM, and others, have managed to convince the TGA that almost all of these products and services are ‘low risk’, meaning low direct risk. Unfortunately, the high indirect risk is being ignored. You are probably not going to die after being slapped, but if you stop taking your real medicine it can lead to your death (the possible cause of the boy’s death). And this is exactly what this slapping therapist says. Medicine is poison so let’s slap your medical condition out of you.  What is my evidence for the bold statement regarding the TGA? They recently published their draft list of ‘permitted indications’, or the ‘medical’ claim that manufacturers can make for their products. Included in this list is 140 TCM indications. For example: “Harmonise middle burner (Spleen and Stomach)”, “Unblock/open/relax meridians”, “Balance Yin and Yang”. When a regulator allows pseudoscientists a foot in the door, then the above is the only logical outcome and now the TGA accepts the notion that meridians, chi, Yin and Yang etc. is real. And here again, the NICM is assisting Chinese companies to help them get past the TGA bureaucracy in order for them to register and sell their products in Australia. Having a partner such as the NICM in Australia, obviously makes a lot of Chinese companies very happy. Shouldn’t the TGA also be blamed when people get hurt after using these pseudoscientific healthcare treatments?

In a nutshell. The bereaved parents of the deceased are in trouble, while the slapping therapist is in jail where he will hopefully stay for a long time. But what about Tasly’s which promoted and hosted this workshop as part of their integrative medicine approach, or the NICM who collaborated with this clinic and facilitated their ‘integrative’ approach and who promoted TCM for decades and probably have misled thousands of people over the years, or the regulators who have opened their doors for pseudoscientists and who are continuing to allow this to happen? (I’ve actually volunteered my services to the TGA, but they were not interested.) Not even to speak about the politicians who could actually do something about this, but apparently have little interest to go in against the zhi (will) of the industry.

I can only hope that the courts will also look at the other players in this scenario who are partly responsible for this boy’s death, because it is time that the underlying problems be addressed, otherwise more and more people, including children, will get hurt.

What can you do about all of this?

Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, then you will be all alone. The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex so the best thing to do is prevention. Stop buying complementary, alternative, traditional or integrative ‘medicines’ and stop  using their ‘treatments’. Inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their game and what the dangers are, regarding these ‘treatments’. ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ provides valuable healthcare information as well as the website of Prof Edzard Ernst, where he discusses everything complementary medicine (what works and what doesn’t). If you are interested in receiving automatic updates regarding the NICM and how they continue to promote these ‘medicines’ and ‘treatments’, you can always follow my Blog,  Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon Awards, for which the NICM has again been nominated. Please, ‘Like’ and share this article via FaceBook etc. – options below.

Stopping your support of these products and services, by informing yourself and by creating awareness about these issues, are pretty much the only things you can do in order to prevent these needless deaths. It is just such a pity that the VC’s, regulators and politicians (all funded by the taxpayer!) don’t have much interest in this, or just can’t seem to get the job done because of vested interests.  I’ll end with the wise, but somewhat empty, words of Prof Barney Glover (VC of WSU) “universities must stand up for facts and the truth – if we don’t, who will!” – Clearly Prof. Glover will not stand up for the truth, hopefully, the public will!

Superfoods (& most complementary meds). They all come with the same steaming side dish: a hearty helping of bullshit.

A bit of humour to let off some steam, but also to continue to battle the flood of misleading information regarding complementary and alternative medicines (CAM). Because, who wants me to explain how CAM is regulated in Australia? ‘Booooring’, ‘yaaawn’, ‘move on mate’ – I can hear you say. Short answer; no one.  So, how can one get this important, albeit boring, information regarding how we are being misled, to as many people as possible? Well, humour might play an interesting role, because everyone loves a good laugh. But then again, how can anyone squeeze any humour out of such a dreary subject? Luckily, there are some exceptionally gifted people, who can do exactly that. Not only can they give this subject a hilarious spin, they can also get the complicated message across – and hopefully many people will learn from this while enjoying some very good comedy.

And it even gets better, because it is all on youtube. I have listed a couple of videos where the consumer program “The Checkout” looked at various aspects regarding CAM regulation and misleading claims made for specific supplements, including superfoods. Sure, the focus is on Australian issues, but the CAM industry in other countries use very similar techniques  – so these videos are perfect for anyone who wants a good laugh, and learn something while doing so. Below is a short description and the total length of each video.

  1. The Australian Complementary Medicines industry is worth over $1.2 billion a year. But do manufacturers have to prove their products work? Or is a celebrity endorsement enough? Craig Reucassel looks into these questions and more. You can find the video here, length 8:47min. (they were sued for defamation based on this segment).
  2. Pharma Sutra: Seems you can buy anything at a pharmacy these days. But are pharmacists breaking their own code of conduct? You can find the video here, length 7:32 min.
  3. Chlorophyll: Kirsten Drysdale throws stones in the chlorophyll glasshouse. You can find the video here, length 3:20 min.
  4. Nicole Kidman Joins The Checkout + Dodgy Swisse Labelling: Consumer affairs Ambassador Nicole Kidman speaks out for the first time about her Swisse ads. And Craig follows up The Checkout’s first investigation into dodgy labelling of complementary medicines, analysing Swisse’s dodgy reaction to their dodgy products being banned. You can find the video here, length 2:30 min.
  5. Swisse update: Craig looks at Swisse’s push for more self-regulation in the advertising of complementary medicines. You can find the video here, length 3:32 min.
  6. Superfoods: They’re ancient, exotic, jam-packed full of antioxidants, and all come with the same steaming side dish: a hearty helping of bullshit. You can find the video here, length 9:00 min.
  7. Fish Oil: Kirsten Drysdale finds something fishy in the world of omega-3 supplements. You can find the video here, length 9:00 min.
  8. U. Tube: Howdy Partner! A special welcome to the ABC’s new commercial partner, Swisse, with a trip down memory lane! You can find the video here, length 1:27 min.

The patriarch of the supplement company Swisse, who features in many of these videos, did sue the Checkout for defamation after video 1 aired, but the case was eventually settled. And as expected, Swisse just continue to sell their dodgy products, using very dodgy claims. Enjoy the videos, and if it is any good please distribute their links via your network!

What can you do about the flood of misinformation re CAMs?

Well, if you are not a politician, Vice Chancellor or work for the regulators, to be honest, not much. One obvious thing that anyone can easily do, is to stop supporting unproven and disproven complementary, alternative and integrative therapies and medicines, even if it might look like harmless interventions (a balanced diet, exercise and drinking enough water is far more beneficial than all these complementary medicines combined – and it’s a lot cheaper).

Another important thing that anyone can do is to inform yourself, because you, or a member of your extended family or friends, will sometime during your lifetime be confronted with fake medicines or fake medical practitioners. The problem is that these people are so good that they can sell ice to an Eskimo, and hence, they can mislead anyone; your age, level of education etc. does not matter. To be well informed will be your only defence.

A very good source of valuable information, with an Australian focus, is the group called ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ (FSM). They are doing excellent work by providing accurate information regarding healthcare, but they are also doing much more than that. They are trying very hard to persuade Australian universities, politicians and regulators to stop their support of pseudoscientific healthcare systems – to fulfill their gatekeeper role. To join the 1100 concerned academics/healthcare professionals you can add your voice by becoming a friend of FSM or follow them on Twitter (@FriendsOfSciMed) or FaceBook. Their newsletters detailing all of their efforts also comes highly recommended. You can subscribe here.

A second valuable source of information is the website of Prof. Edzard Ernst in the UK. Prof Ernst was the first professor of complementary medicine (now retired), but luckily also happens to be a real scientist. He has many decades of experience, which he now shares via his website. This information is invaluable and deals with specific complementary medicines but also with how people around the globe are being misled by pseudoscientists. He has also written many books written in a style that anyone can understand (info on his website) dealing with this subject – it comes highly recommended. Twitter @EdzardErnst

You can also continue to read about my attempts to explain how the minds of pseudoscientists work, and what they are trying to achieve. Although my focus is on the NICM, many universities around the world have similar Institutes who’s modus operandi is exactly the same as the NICMs. You can follow my blog at (frankvanderkooy.com) or Twitter (@frank_kooy) or connect on LinkedIn. A simple and easy thing to do is to use the ‘Like’ function, because algorithms pick up on the number of likes which leads to the article being made available to a wider audience, and thereby creating more public awareness regarding these issues.

Playing the Scientific Game and the Impact on Society – Complementary Medicine: an Insider’s Perspective

(I’ve written a letter to the Vice-Chancellor of Western Sydney University (WSU) in June 2015 covering some of my concerns that I had, and still have, regarding the National Institute of Complementary Medicine. Below you can read this letter, albeit in a somewhat shorter version (a much shorter and edited version you can find here). The response from WSU on all of my letters, and subsequent shorter versions, was simply:

“The University repeats its response in my letter to you 10 November 2015, that is to say:

  • the proposed publication (as revised) makes a number of assertions that are baseless and again those assertions are unsubstantiated by any evidence;
  • the proposed publication (as revised) contains commentary that appears to be defamatory.

The University does not wish to receive any further communications from you.  As previously advised, it is a matter for you whether to publish the article, and a matter for any publisher to decide whether it is worthy of publication.  That said, the University reserves all of its rights as against you and/or any publisher.”

This was followed by bestowing an honorary fellowship upon the NICMs main sponsor.)

The letter:

1. Introduction

Professors in science, fully supported by a university, endorse and defend the use of water as a scientifically proven treatment of disease! [a1,a2] As if all scientific principles, logic and ethics have left the building. Let us dig a bit deeper and ask another question! What is the golden rule and main objective of the academic world today? Is it making processes more efficient at universities so that scientists can come up with a real cure for cancer or end world hunger, and by so doing provide quality student training? Oh no, it is much simpler: “The higher the number of scientific publications the better” – not something one would expect of intelligent visionary people. The primary objective of scientists in the academic world has become the act of publishing. As such it is not new, but it is definitely increasing in importance. If you follow this golden rule you will become a top scientist. And then sometimes the general public will use statements such as “It is a scientific fact that…” – ouch. This intense and growing focus on scientific publications has led to some voices highlighting the difficulties, pitfalls and long-term impact being felt when scientific quality (and thus the quality of the scientist) is determined by means of the number of publications, number of citations, journal impact factors etc. [1,2,3] There are many numbers that academic administrators gave artificial importance to, and it is as if they manage to come up with a new “important” number every year. This can truly be called the “Scientific Game” and is best described with the well-known “publish or perish” mantra. Is playing this game harmless and maybe a clever way to keep (average) scientists busy?

There have also been many debates and reports dealing with the “scientific” field of Complementary Medicine (CM) – mainly regarding the questions of whether this is really “science” or just outright quackery; of whether universities can and should teach CM as a scientifically validated healthcare option; and if universities should be used as a vehicle to give scientific credibility to these, mainly, bogus medical treatments. [4,5]  Do you know, for example, that acupuncture supposedly works for just about every medical condition out there – from treating cancer and depression to enhancing memory and even fertility. With a bit of time and a lot of taxpayer’s money this will become scientific “fact” in the near future. [W1] Or is it maybe as Tom Hanks recently described it when he lashed out at the cancer quacks after his wife’s battle with cancer: “There’s a predatorily philosophy that happens where people find out that you have a certain illness, particularly cancer, and they will try and make money off of you ….”, and “…. there are people who are dealing and selling in false hopes.” [W2] The main question, however, is this: should universities, mainly funded by the taxpayer, produce “scientific evidence” for medical treatments or products that are pretty much ineffective and sometimes dangerous, and thereby knowingly mislead or harm the taxpayer?  This question can be asked of all medical research but in this manuscript it specifically deals with CM. The current scientific game, which focuses solely on a range of meaningless numbers, enables CM to grow and flourish at certain universities. In this manuscript I will give some inside information, as an analytical chemist and scientist, who worked (2012-2015) at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), Western Sydney University (WSU), Australia, on these two aspects – the former enabling the latter – and the potential deleterious effect thereof on society. The end result is that professors in science, backed by a university, defend the use of water as a scientifically proven treatment of disease.

 

2. The number game: publish or perish!

Over the past 10 or so years I have witnessed these numbers grow in importance to a level where it can only be described as all-encompassing.  Every single thing we do as scientists is mirrored against these numbers. Or, should I rather say, that chasing these numbers dictates every single thing that we do. We simply became slaves of our own CVs with the simple golden rule of the higher your numbers the better your chances. Unfortunately this leads to a large amount of junk being published, not only reporting bad science, but usually scientific results that does not have any impact on society whatsoever. We do whatever we can to get anything published, moving from the one journal to the next (starting with the journal with the highest impact factor) in what can only be described as “journal-hopping”. Journal-hopping can sometimes take years, which means that during this time the researcher/student is not actively involved in doing research in the laboratory. And yet we are forced to publish just about everything because it is not about science, training students or the general public – it is about the act of publishing. Your job and your future career depend on it. There is a large body of literature available that describes the “publish or perish” mantra in great detail with one downside the subsequent increase in scientific misconduct (falsification, fabrication and plagiarism).

The real purpose and focus of a university should be student training and scientific research resulting in a positive impact on society – and these two aspects go hand in hand; the one cannot function without the other. If this is the focus, everything else will fall into place. Normally with an increase in quantity comes a decrease in quality and some may now argue that we have the peer review system in place in order to ensure scientific integrity and quality, and that junk do not get published – a.k.a. the gatekeepers for scientific quality. Does this system work? My experience tells me otherwise and luckily I am not alone. [6,7] Clearly there will be differences in how the scientific game is being played in different scientific fields and in different countries. At NICM all effort and resources go into creating an image that NICM is scientifically excellent in all aspects, specifically referring to all these (high) numbers, but without performing good independent scientific research.

Most academics know that we have a problem but no one really wants to discuss this issue because it cannot easily be solved – it is just too complex. And after all, if you are ahead with your numbers, why would you want to solve it anyway? There is, however, one publication that made me realise how futile, dangerous and inefficient the academic system is due to this fixation on playing the scientific number game. The title is simple and to the point, “Why most published research findings are false”, with one of the main conclusions being “…claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.” [8] And this is why there are apparently scientific publications out there that “scientifically validates” homeopathy and related CM. In a similar way that scientists sold the idea to the general public that smoking tobacco is harmless a number of decades ago.

3. Complementary medicine: How science is being practiced at NICM

3.1 NICM’s general approach

I applied for the position at NICM with an open mind believing that there are indeed some CM’s with merit which should be investigated. After joining NICM at WSU I very soon realised, within mere weeks, that I found myself in wonderland. A case of self-plagiarism was my first clue but after witnessing how science is being practised at NICM and after being probed as to where my allegiance lies, I realised that I am in for a rough ride. For example: I had to warn a student about (the possibility of) self-plagiarism simply because the only difference between six publications were the names of the compound and the herb tested. [9-14] Even though these publications have very little, if any, scientific impact or impact on the community, it does show intend. Can these results be trusted? And this under the watchful eye of a professor! The students are not to blame here but the blame should be squarely on the senior author – it is his job to explain this to students and of course lead by example, and this is clearly not the case.  I tried to convince NICM management, especially the senior author, of this for about 2 years, but stopped after a new PhD student presented a PhD proposal containing the exact same approach. All I could do was to ask the student to please include some novelty into her project. For NICM it is about the number of papers. High quality student training and research? No way!

As a scientist at NICM you will either have to convert to become a fellow believer or they will stop you dead in your tracks – and as a member of the public, they might even stop your life. Do whatever you can to put a positive spin on CM by innovative experimental designs, report only positive findings (or make a neutral result sound positive), claim that CM is save to use and that it is cost effective, and then use phrases like “we are building the body of evidence for CM” and “we are doing evidenced-based scientific research”. The question of bioavailability and in vivo efficacy, or the complete lack thereof, is rarely, if ever, addressed. As such the research approach in CM has been very well documented and discussed. [4,15]

Impact on society – not something that scientists always keep in mind. As scientists we have an obligation towards the taxpayer as we are basically public servants tasked with teaching and training our youth, and to use the knowledge and experience that we have gained to the benefit of the general public via the research that we do. At NICM, taxpayers’ money is not only used to aggressively play the number game but NICM is also knowingly misleading the general public. Yet NICM has achieved something remarkable enabling them to continue on this path. Based on the number of papers, impact factors, citations and income from the CM industry, NICM was ranked according to the Excellence in Research in Australia (ERA) in 2012 as “well above world standard”. NICM received the highest possible ERA rating of 5. That the director served on a ERA panel might have something to do with this, but nevertheless, all my attempts to obtain the data that was used by the ARC to rank NICM failed. Neither the ARC nor the research office at WSU, nor NICM could provide me with this data. I therefore became increasingly concerned that science has been hijacked by people who understand the scientific game extremely well and play the game exceptionally well – hence our high ERA rating – in order to give credibility to (mainly) bogus treatments and thereby potentially harming the general public.

How does NICM manage to mislead everyone? There are countless examples: In NICM’s newsletter of June 2015 they proudly report on: “New research confirms efficacy and safety of chondroitin sulphate for osteoarthritis”. A citation is given and one would expect that it refers to the results – but it does not. They cite a general publication on osteoarthritis. The publication reporting the original results included an additional important paragraph that NICM just did not include: “We identified a lot of studies in which unsound methods were used to assess the effects of chondroitin. For some outcomes, there was not enough data. In some studies, whose methodological quality was better, chondroitin showed no improvement in pain…” [16] Report anything that shows some positive result (even if the word slightly is used excessively to describe the results) and do not report anything negative. Why? Most people only read the title and when a scientific publication is cited only the title appears. So make sure your title is overly positive even though the results are at best questionable. And importantly, the general public believes that science, as reported by the scientist, is based on facts.  And there goes the sales figures!

NICM employs a large number of people, funded by the taxpayer, focusing on nothing else but to increase our numbers, improve our image and improve and protect the image of the CM industry. They employ people to create and maintain this amazing facade that we focus on doing independent scientific research – which we don’t. They do extensive marketing and branding of the institute, they lobby politicians, [W3] they approach celebrities (think here of a member of the British Royal family) to become patrons or spokespeople to further the interests of the CM industry. Why? To give NICM and CM more credibility [a3-a5] (credibility is earned by producing good unbiased scientific results – something that is very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the field of CM). They involve themselves with the regulatory agencies and even act as chairperson for many years on the “CM evaluation committee” for the Therapeutic Goods Administration (industry regulating industry). [W4] They lobby the CM industry and receive funding from them as well as commercial contracts. [W5] [a6,a7] [17]

They target external (inter)national eminent scientists who publish a large number of papers every year and they try to sell them dual affiliation – some fall for it while others do not. [a8,a9,a10] They set up collaborations with Chinese companies and universities and manage to include a signing of a Memorandum of Understanding during the Australian-China Free Trade Agreement signing. [W6] And the purpose of this? They want to use Australian citizens as guinea pigs for testing ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine – much of it unproven and ineffective and some outright dangerous – just to make a dollar. How? Use acupuncture because it has been shown to cause no side-effects (and efficacy?) and then sneak in TCM’s. [a11,a12,a13] They plan everything and every possible scenario in the finest of detail in order to maintain the image of NICM and the CM industry and they have no problem with simply misleading the public while doing this. For example: A large amount of funding was recently received from the Jacka Foundation of Natural Therapies in order to establish a Chair position at NICM. [a14] This position has not yet been advertised and already a number of people worked on pre-selecting possible candidates, while others worked on all possible questions from journalists that might be asked and, of course, the “correct” answer that should be given. [a15,a16] The answer to the question of whether NICM have any possible candidates in mind is simply “no”. Why not just be honest? Because NICM cannot run the risk of employing another real scientist and they have to do everything they can to ensure that they hire a fellow believer.

And where does the Jacka Foundation get their funds? They own property in Melbourne, one of the world’s most expensive cities, and now they use the rental income to buy a scientific department at WSU [W7] And WSU is of course very happy with these funds because it improves their numbers. But money vs safety? Money unfortunately comes first. NICM happily provided laboratory space to an adjunct that can only be described as of a very advanced age and completely immobile – truly a safety disaster waiting to happen. Why? Because this person is apparently “loaded” and they are expecting an inheritance soon. This person’s safety and the safety of the other laboratory users do not matter, as long as there is a slight chance of some money coming in. [a17,a18] And if NICM (and WSU) treats its own people like this, just imagine how they will treat the general public. It is concerning when the executive of NICM is advised by an external consultant not to take on a project dealing with the quality control of an illegally imported product, and yet they still try and take on the project with the simple argument that if NICM performs the analytical work according to the book, then the rest does not matter. [A19] If someone dies then NICM cannot be blamed. Strong advice not to involve ourselves with illegal products luckily stopped this project, but it reflects how NICM’s hunger for money far outweighs the safety of the general public.

NICM is nothing more than a university department providing unbalanced scientific “evidence” for the CM industry, making a dollar by doing so, and enhancing the image of CM and the “world-class” top scientists at NICM. They do this in a very clever way. One way is to quantify known compounds in a CM product simply because this constitutes scientific research and this approach can only give a positive result [W8] and lead to a “scientific” stamp of approval. One of the main critiques (also by the World Health Organisation) against the use of medicinal herbs is the lack of quality control (and of course efficacy etc). This is well known criticism and in a presentation given during my interview, I clearly stated that the problem is not a lack of analytical methods to quantify compounds in herbs but a lack of our ability to be in control of the quality. I failed to convince NICM management and to this day NICM is developing methods to quantify compounds in herbs with the claim that they are addressing the criticism as given by the WHO. In vivo safety and efficacy also does not really matter. Asking numerous times that toxicity should be investigated for one such product, keeping in mind that one of NICM’s priorities is: “…elucidates safety, efficacy and cost effectiveness of complementary medicine and translates this into policy and practice”, nothing happened. [W9] Testing for toxicity has not even been discussed in any of the project meetings. [a20] A statement was even made that in vitro toxicity testing suffers from false positive results, so why bother. If this specific product show toxicity or not does not really matter, but the reluctance to test for toxicity is against NICM’s own priorities. Asking the question if they will be confident to give this product to their own children did however make them think for a second – but only for a second. In other words they design experiments that will give positive results and they really do not have safety and efficacy of these products in mind.

3.2 Impact on society

In order to maintain and strengthen this massive and complex network you need to employ a lot of people, all of them paid by the taxpayer. NICM received $2.15 million from the taxpayer in 2015 (excluding industry and foundation contributions), most of which goes to salaries. Discussing my growing ethical concerns with NICM and WSU in 2013 only resulted in NICM’s budget being increased in subsequent years. As a scientist you know that you are in trouble when you raise your concerns, which include the selling of false hope to desperate people and generally misleading the public, to which the Director responds with, “but everyone is doing this.” And in all of this, especially with the continued support of WSU, you do not really need to do independent scientific research and student training. Almost all of NICM’s resources are being spent on growing and maintaining this massive complex network of lobbying and propaganda for the CM industry – and admittedly, NICM is doing it brilliantly. Any criticism from anyone – it is simply laughed off. “We bring in lots of money from industry”, “We are top scientists – just look at our numbers”, “The university is fully behind us so we do not understand what your problem is.”

The following example epitomises the whole problem: The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of Australia recently published a report on Homeopathic treatments and they found that there is no evidence for their efficacy whatsoever. [W10] We should now, as a trusted institute, discourage the general public from using homeopathic treatments, as the NHMRC report concluded that: “People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness”. NICM should therefore endorse this finding. After all, on our publicly available information pamphlet, we stand for, “In pursuit of better health for Humanity”. Yes, we should test claims of companies and advise the general public that they are being misled by ineffective or potentially dangerous medications or treatments, as is clearly the case with homeopathic treatments. NICM’s response to the NHMRC report was however quite different and can only be described as rejecting their findings by playing the scientific number game. [W11] NICM welcomed the NHMRC report but states, “Randomized controlled trials of homeopathy were not systematically and independently reviewed. Laboratory and animal studies were also excluded. No homeopathic expert was appointed to the NHMRC Review Panel” and “This conclusion is consistent with many, but not all, international reviews of homeopathy”. No citations were given to provide the public with the missing “scientific evidence” for NICM’s claimed efficacy of homeopathy and therefore this statement can only cause confusion amongst the public.

This NICM statement made me realise that NICM is actively misleading and potentially harming the general public. Does NICM investigate homeopathic treatments? No they don’t simply because, as stated by the director, homeopathy is too controversial! In other words if you investigate homeopathy you will in all likelihood get a negative result – and that is not something that NICM wants.

The premier flagship CM Institute in Australia and WSU supports the use of Homeopathic treatments. Why? It boils down to this: If NICM receives a large amount of funding (>$5 million over a number of years) from the Jacka Foundation of Natural Therapies, which actively supports and promotes the following as effective medical treatments: “Energy and Subtle Healing, Homeopathy, Hypnotherapy, Meditation, Planetary and Human Ecology, Reflexology, Acupuncture, Acupressure, Alexander Technique, ……… (a very long list but very interesting), [W12] one will start to understand the somewhat predictable response from NICM to the NHMRC report. If NICM fully supports the findings of the report, this foundation will stop or decrease their funding and in the long run that will be the end of NICM. Can we call this a blatant conflict of interest? Is this legal? Does it break a consumer law? Does this constitute scientific misconduct? As a scientist I am now supposed to defend these treatments – but by doing that I will knowingly be misleading the public and potentially cause serious harm or even death.

This is the main problem with playing the number game – it gives scientific credibility to these un-testable, ineffective and dangerous treatments. We do not even have to study any of these above-mentioned treatments and yet whatever we publish gives credibility to these treatments. When you count the number of papers, impact factors, citations and industry income and you punch that into a computer, the computer spits out another number which means “well above world standard”. Really?

4. Taking on NICM and the fate of whistleblowers

What happens if these ethical concerns are explained or discussed with colleagues at NICM? A very blank expression and maybe even a hint of shock, and an immediate reference to our ERA 5 rating. How can I possibly have these concerns if we are rated well above world standard and our scientific outputs are reviewed by the world’s top scientists? The scientific game and the resulting ERA 5 rating are basically used to silence any criticism or concerns. Unfortunately there are people who know the scientific game well, they play it aggressively and they truly believe in it. They really believe that these numbers mean that they are great scientists and that the science they do is therefore of the highest quality. There is no support for independent scientific research – and honestly, if you can manage to reach the highest echelons of the scientific system by playing the number game, who would bother to do dirty old independent science in the laboratory? And this is the damage that the scientific game is doing – it enables “scientists” and industries selling bogus products to get away with it.

Some may ask if I have done enough to try and solve this problem. I have raised my concerns with NICM and that led to nothing other than sidelining myself – I had to withdraw from specific projects and publications (and yet they still named me as a co-author), which caused a lot of tension. I have raised my concerns with the WSU management, which also led to nothing. Since 2013 I have tried to move to other departments at WSU but there was no real interest or assistance from WSU – simply because moving me would have been an admission of guilt. I did however realise that by me leaving, the problem will not be addressed and I will knowingly allow the general public to be harmed. This realisation came to me when I was called by a Paediatrician who suspected CM (from a well-known Australian supplier) to have caused severe poisoning in a 4-year-old girl. Thus by keeping quiet I will indirectly be responsible for putting the general public at risk (the girl luckily recovered after her herbal treatment was stopped). So I fear that people may die because of the game that is being played at NICM and at WSU. This is the main point that I have raised with the Vice Chancellor of WSU, without much happening (this unedited manuscript was sent to him along with additional information). [a21] The response, after a number of weeks and after a number of email exchanges, was simply, “…. nor any of the information you have provided to date, support your assertions concerning NICM”. With this response and noticing that NICM is receiving more support and taxpayer money from WSU, simply meant that my time was up. The only option left was to expose NICM internally, with the hope that they will draw their swords on each other, and not use it on me. Unfortunately the latter happened and that led to my demise.

Neither the Dean of the School of Science and Health, nor any other Professor included in this specific conversation even bothered to ask what my problems with NICM were. [a22] And this tells me only one thing: they are all in on this and they are completely happy to maintain the status quo. But because I do not want to falsely accuse anyone of anything I’ve send (a month after I left WSU) this manuscript to the directors of NICM for comments. This resulted in me receiving a letter from the WSU management calling what I’ve written as “baseless to say the very least”, without any scientific comments (I cannot use the WSU affiliation and the statement about the missing reference in NICM’s newsletter is not their fault). They want to know if NICM has broken any rules or regulations. If not, then they are allowed to continue to promote water as a cancer treatment!  And importantly WSU reserves all of its rights against me – for whatever that means. [a2]

5. Conclusions

How is it possible that a professor in science and a university can promote and defend the use of water as a scientifically proven treatment for disease? I do hope that I have managed to give an adequate answer to this question. The steady growth in the use of CM and the number of courses offered in CM at universities around the world is the result of a scientific system in need of urgent reform. And yet NICM is not entirely to blame here; they are only masterfully using the deficiencies of the current scientific system to enable them to prosper and the general public to suffer (health-wise as well as financially). CM is by no means the only scientific field that is potentially damaging to society and there are other fields of science that are also guilty, to some degree. One important question, that needs to be asked. Is NICM breaking any laws? No they do not (excluding self plagiarism and naming academics as co-authors on manuscripts without those people even knowing about it – but WSU will just brush this aside as unimportant), and they are extremely careful not to break any laws – they spend a lot of time and resources to stay within the legal framework. It is not illegal to serve on different advisory boards or to lobby politicians, to pre-select potential new employees and unfortunately it is not illegal to sell water to cancer patients. You do however need to spend a huge amount of resources to be able to continue to legally sell water (and other useless interventions) to cancer patients making the primary focus of WSU, to be a distinctively student-centred and a vibrant research led University, at NICM impossible to attain.

As long as WSU support NICM with taxpayer’s money, NICM will continue to lobby regulators, politicians, doctors, health care insurance companies etc. in order to maintain the current rules regulating CM but also to eventually relax the rules governing CM. So we can be sure that not only is water legally being sold as medicine, but with time, other CM medicines will also legally enter the market. They are currently pushing very hard to get TCM’s over the line. Anyone that opposes this and wants to break this vicious cycle will be sued by WSU/NICM, simply because they are currently not breaking any rules – that I know of. This cycle can therefore only be broken if the taxpayer decides that enough is enough. Hence a public awareness campaign will probably be the only approach that might have a chance of success. Worst case scenario, NICM and WSU will maintain the status quo, go into an aggressive damage control mode (they already started), use the number of citations that this paper will attract to increase their own numbers and obviously get rid of any (future) trouble makers, and importantly they will continue to promote and defend water, and other CM’s, as validated treatments for disease. Best case scenario: Public outrage, full investigation of NICM and a return to support and practice of real science at WSU leading to a real positive impact on society.

References

Journal

Moustafa, K. (2015). The Disaster of the Impact Factor. Sci Eng Ethics 21:139–142.

Hicks, D. and Wouters, P. (2015). The Leiden Manifesto for Research Metrics. Nature. 520:429–431.

Adams, D. (2002). The Counting House. Nature. 415:726–729.

Singh, S., Ernst, E. (2008). Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. Bantam Press. ISBN: 0-593-06129-2. Pg 352.

Angell, M. and Kassirer, J.P. (1998). Alternative Medicine — The Risks of Untested and Unregulated Remedies. The New England Journal of Medicine. 339:839–841.

Ferguson, C., Marcus, A. and Oransky, I. (2014). The Peer Review Scam. Nature. 515:480–482.

Gura, T. (2002). Peer Review, Unmasked. Nature. 416:258–260.

Ioannidis, J.P.A. (2005). Why Most Published Research Findings are False. PLoS Medicine. 2:696–701.

Lee, Samiuela; Khoo, Cheang; Wade Halstead, Clynton; Huynh, Thuy; Bensoussan, Alan. (2007)Liquid Chromatographic Determination of Honokiol and Magnolol in Hou Po (Magnolia officinalis) as the Raw Herb and Dried Aqueous Extract. Journal of AOAC International, 90(5) 1210-1218.

Lee, Samiuela; Khoo, Cheang; Wade Halstead, Clynton; Huynh, Thuy; Bensoussan, Alan. (2007). Liquid Chromatographic Determination of 6-, 8-, 10-Gingerol, and 6-Shogaol in Ginger (Zingiber officinale) as the Raw Herb and Dried Aqueous Extract. Journal of AOAC International, 90 (5) 1219-1226.

Lee, Samiuela; S Khoo, Cheang; L Pearson, Jarryd; R Hennell, James; Bensoussan, Alan. (2009). Liquid Chromatographic Determination of Narirutin and Hesperidin in Zhi Ke (Citrus aurantium L.) in the Form of the Raw Herb and of the Dried Aqueous Extract. Journal of AOAC International, 92 (3)789-796.

Lee, Samiuela; S Khoo, Cheang; R Hennell, James; L Pearson, Jarryd; Jarouche, Mariam; W Halstead, Clynton; Bensoussan, Alan. (2009) LC Determination of Albiflorin and Paeoniflorin in Bai Shao (Paeonia lactiflora) as a Raw Herb and Dried Aqueous Extract. Journal of AOAC International, 92, (4) 1027-1034.

C.W. Halstead, S. Lee, C.S. Khoo, J.R. Hennell, A. Bensoussan, (2007).Validation of a method for the simultaneous determination of four schisandra lignans in the raw herb and commercial dried aqueous extracts of Schisandra chinensis (Wu Wei Zi) by RP-LC with DAD, Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis, 45(1) 30-37.

J.R. Hennell, S. Lee, C.S. Khoo, M.J. Gray, A. Bensoussan, (2008).The determination of glycyrrhizic acid in Glycyrrhiza uralensis Fisch. ex DC. (Zhi Gan Cao) root and the dried aqueous extract by LC–DAD, Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis, 47, 494-500.

Ernst E, Lee M S. (2008). A trial design that generates only ”positive” results. J Postgrad Med, 54:214-6

Singh, J.A., Noorbaloochi, S., MacDonald, R., Maxwell, L.J. (2015). Chondroitin for Osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 1. Art. No.: CD005614. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD005614.pub2.

Guallar E., Stranges S., Mulrow C., Appel L.J. and Miller E.R. (2013).Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements. Ann Intern Med. 159,850–851.

Websites (accessed on 30/10/2015)

[W1] http://nicm.edu.au/clinical_trials

[W2] http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/health-problems/tom-hanks-lashes-out-at-cancer-quacks-after-his-wifes-battle-with-breast-cancer/story-fneuzlbd-1227583490898

[W3]http://nicm.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/846473/150223_House_of_Representatives_Hansard_2.pdf#page=142

[W4] http://nicm.edu.au/about/people/researchers/professor_alan_bensoussan

[W5] http://nicm.edu.au/about

[W6]http://www.uws.edu.au/newscentre/news_centre/more_news_stories/china_connection_to_build_bridge_to_better_health_in_australia

[W7] http://www.jackafoundation.org.au/index.php/about-us.html

[W8]http://researchdirect.uws.edu.au/islandora/object/uws%3A11202/datastream/PDF/view

[W9] http://nicm.edu.au/about/objectives_and_priorities

[W10]https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/publications/attachments/cam02_nhmrc_statement_homeopathy.pdf

[W11]http://nicm.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/670740/Homeopathy_statement_May_2014_DRAFT_4.pdf

[W12]http://web.archive.org/web/20140621155715/http://jackafoundation.org.au/index.php/about-natural-therapies

[W13] http://nicm.edu.au/research/lab_research

How does the NICM deal with negative media reports? And what does the regulator, the TGA, have to do with it?

As soon as you read any negative media report describing people who got hurt or died using  complementary medicine (CM), you can expect a statement from the CM industry such as “Australia already has one of the most rigorous regulatory systems in the world for complementary medicines,” or “he said Australia had a world-class system for regulating complementary medicines.” The NICM, an “independent” research institute, use a very similar statement “with Australia having one of the highest (?) regulatory systems for complementary medicines in the world.” When you read the NICMs media releases you will come across this statement, and many other commonly shared statements, quite often.

It is almost as if the CM industry has met with the NICM where they together decided that this statement will cause the least damage to the CM industry. It will come as no surprise that this is exactly what happened. The NICM has developed, in partnership with the CM industry, a communication strategy to deal with negative media reports (highlighted text page 3 and 4) and this full time position at the NICM is fully funded by industry (highlighted text page 3).  The first important question is; if you are fully paid by industry will you really say anything negative regarding their products or will you only defend it? The second issue; isn’t it maybe better to employ a scientist who can critically look at the media report and provide all the scientific evidence (risks and benefits) for that specific CM? Isn’t that what an “independent” institute such as the NICM should do? Their statement is designed so that the public should think that all CM products are rigorously tested by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and hence they should not worry too much. Trust the TGA!

The term CM encompasses such a huge number of different medical treatments and products, so surely the NICM should be able to say that a specific CM works or not, or that it carries a number of risks. The public need to get the full story! Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case, so together with their industry partners and sponsors they devised strategies to undermine the much discussed NHMRC homeopathy report, and any other negative media reports covering any CM, such as chiropractic.  And, of course, they have devised a strategy to deal with their archenemies the Friends of Science in Medicine.

But, does Australia have the best regulatory system for CMs in the world? CM’s are regulated through the TGA and the current estimates of listed CM products ranges between 10 000 and 16 000.  Most members of the public believe that this mean that the TGA has tested the claims of all these products, but this is simply not the case. It is not the responsibility of the TGA to perform these tests – it is up to the CM industry to provide information regarding efficacy and safety. But there is another very important aspect that is often overlooked. In my view there are actually two “levels” of regulations concerning CMs. The most important level of regulation concerns the safety and efficacy. Only when a product ticks this box does the second level of regulations (quality control, labelling, stability testing, packaging, advertising etc) become important. The TGA does a wonderful job when it comes to the second level of regulations – although some people might hold a different view on this – but it fails miserably at the first level of regulation. This means that the regulatory environment of CM’s in Australia is completely inadequate and the statement made by the CM industry/ NICM is simply misleading the public.

To prove my point. I can identify a plant growing in my garden, google the name of the plant and  download the “scientific evidence” that this particular species has been used somewhere in the world for at least three generations – which means it is safe – and then register a new product with the TGA.  I do not have to provide the evidence of efficacy, I just have to say that I have it somewhere, and that it is available on request. If the evidence is requested by the TGA, and this only happens in a very few cases, I can simply withdraw my new product without facing any penalties. The fact that there are 10 000-16 000 CMs (and this number is growing fast) further strengthens my point. It is a very simple process and the NICM has spent a lot of effort lobbying the TGA to make this process so simple. For their hard work the NICM was also duly awarded a prize from the CM industry.

The main problem with this overreliance on scientific publications produced elsewhere as evidence of safety and efficacy, is that academics all over the world are under such pressure to publish that some scholars currently claim that “most published research findings are false”. This can again be seen by the interesting phenomenon that almost 100% of clinical trials of herbal traditional Chinese medicine gave positive results when the research is conducted in China.  Thus, in my view, the regulatory environment in Australia for CMs is most definitely inadequate.

When the NICM/CM industry refers to the TGA they refer to the second level of regulations regarding quality control, packaging, labelling etc. And they do this simply to mislead the public. It is like claiming that homeopathy (or acupuncture) is extremely cost-effective and hence should be promoted nationally but completely forgetting about the efficacy and/or safety issues. Yes water is very cost effective but does it work as a cancer treatment? When they claim that the quality control, labelling, stability etc is done according to TGA regulations (second level of regulations) they seem to be forgetting about the most important issue of safety and efficacy of CMs.

But then again if you look at the number of complaints that the TGA receives regarding misleading label claims then the NICMs approach becomes quite concerning. The CM industry are notorious for making massive claims without having much evidence to back this up and for breaching label laws without any real penalties from regulators. Any move from government to improve or strengthen regulations is fiercely opposed by industry/NICM and they will garner support from some high profile politicians in order to prevent tighter regulations. Currently industry and the NICM are lobbying for even further deregulation of CM products. They want to make it simpler and easier for industry to sell their products. So is the NICM an independent research institute – no way!

What can you do about all of this?

Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, then you will be all alone. The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex so the best thing to do is prevention. Stop buying their products or using their treatments, and inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their game and what the dangers are regarding these ‘treatments’. ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ provides valuable healthcare information as well as the website of Prof Edzard Ernst, where he discusses everything complementary medicine (what works and what doesn’t). If you are interested in receiving automatic updates regarding the NICM and what they are up to, you can always follow my Blog,  Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon awards (the NICM has obviously been nominated), and please, ‘Like’ and share this article via FaceBook etc. – options below.