‘Take control of your health’, and we’ll take control of your wealth!

“Take charge of your health by being an informed consumer” or “….empowering patients to take control of their health and wellbeing” etc.

These are very common statements made by proponents of complementary, alternative and integrative medicine (CAIM), and it conveys a very clear message; you should take control of your health! But the question is; what do they really want to achieve with this message? If we look at this superficially, we might think that they refer to a healthy diet, physical exercise and other positive lifestyle changes, but then again, any medical doctor will give you this advice as well.  One might think that being an ‘informed’ consumer is clearly good advice, but then again, why do they continue to provide the public with misleading and false information regarding their CAIM products and therapies? So, it cannot be this either. So, what is it that these people really want to achieve with statements like this?

Well it’s simple, they want more people to buy their disproven and unproven products, and hence they aim to manipulate us, with using statements like this, in doing just that. One of their techniques is what I call, a soup kitchen approach, where they provide some good information for free, in order to lure us into their web of deceit. Because they do not make much money with their ‘good advice’ (e.g. lifestyle changes), they are thus hoping that we will also fall for their false and misleading information regarding the benefits and safety of a huge range of products, that they happen to sell.  To give you a rough idea of the sheer number of ‘products/services’ in their arsenal, please have a look at this table.

So, allow me to translate what they actually want to achieve with their ‘take control’ statement. There are two important aspects; creating distrust in conventional healthcare, and masterfully exploit a very common innate cognitive bias that we all suffer from, in order to increase their sales.

Let’s first look at creating distrust in conventional healthcare. With this message, they are implying that our health is currently in the hands of someone else, and that we should now take it back – it is our right. This is quite misleading. Lifestyle choices is indeed in our hands, but even people with the healthiest lifestyles, still get sick. And when you do get sick, you should go to a qualified medical doctor, get a proper diagnosis and a conventional medicine prescription – if needed (most people do not have the medical knowledge to do this themselves). In this conventional approach, we do not have much control and we put our trust in the hands of trained professionals.  According to the CAIM proponents this is not a good system because you need to be in full control.

So, with their ‘take control’ message they are actually creating distrust in conventional healthcare  with some even going as far as stating that very little of conventional healthcare has been proven to work, or that medicine just treats the symptoms and not the cause, or medicine doesn’t work at all, it is just toxic etc. Clearly, the real message here is that we should not really trust our doctor or conventional medicine, but we should trust ourselves and we should make our own healthcare decisions. The CAIM proponents only provide the ‘options’ that we can choose from, but unfortunately, they are notorious for making false and misleading claims about these ‘options’. And don’t they provide a massive range of products to choose from (and importantly, many pharmacies also benefit from this situation). In Australia, you have a choice of roughly 20 000 CAIM products. In South Africa, it is estimated that there are more than 155 000 products, and I have been informed that none of these products have had their quality, efficacy or safety verified!  But who cares, they want you to trust yourself and to decide which of these products will work for you.

The second aspect is exploiting an innate cognitive bias that we all struggle with. All of us are continuously performing risk-benefit analysis, usually, without us even knowing it.  Everything we do; getting out of bed, driving to work, going for a walk in the park etc. carries a risk and hence we will continuously perform a risk-benefit analysis. The CAIM proponents are skilfully exploiting the fact that we sometimes struggle to get this right, and in some cases, we just get it completely wrong. For example: we are far more likely (up to a thousand times) to downplay or ignore a risk if we perceive to be in control of a situation. A good example: we are far more likely to get into a car (we are in control) than getting into a plane (a trained professional is in control), even though the former is much riskier than the latter. Using false and misleading claims for their products and making their ‘take control’ statements, we are hoodwinked into perceiving that we can be in full control of our health, and hence we are far more likely to ignore the (in)direct risks associated with CAIM products.  And this is where they are really making a killing with their ‘take control’ message. Add to this the distrust that they are creating in trained professionals and conventional medicine, then it is no wonder that more and more people are consulting Dr Google and buying OTC CAIM products.

The CAIM proponents are quite happy with this situation because they can now use the explosive growth in sales figures as ‘evidence’ that their products work – the typical appeal to popularity fallacy (another weapon in their arsenal). So, what is the take home message? With their statement, they are trying to take healthcare out of the hands of professionals and they want to place it in your hands (and you don’t have the medical knowledge), knowing fully well that in such a situation we are much more prone to take a risk by dipping our toes into their disproven and unproven CAIM therapies and products – it is all about money!

But is there anything we can do about this? We are irrational beings, so trying to change or influence human nature is highly unlikely to succeed. The only thing we can do, is to continue to expose how the CAIM industry misleads the public, and hopefully, one day, politicians and regulators will start to impose very tight restrictions on this industry, which frankly speaking, should not have existed in the first place.

Complementary Medicine Australia (CMA). Masters in selling ice to Eskimo’s, but occasionally, they do slip up and acknowledge it!

It is always interesting, and sometimes hilarious, when Complementary Medicine proponents slip up, especially when it is on national TV. As we all know, these people try their utmost best to lobby just about everyone in order to increase the sales of their mostly ineffective products. Asian countries are now being targeted by Australian companies such as Blackmores and Swisse, with the latter even sponsoring the ABC’s international network giving them exclusive advertising rights in Asian countries. Contrary to this rather shocking revelation, the ABC’s program ‘Four Corners’ took an in-depth look at the vitamin and supplement industry in Australia, and reported, unsurprisingly, that most of their products are unproven (although, disproven might have been a better term to use) – you can find the full transcript of the program here.

At the end of the program Carl Gibson, the CEO of Complementary Medicine Australia (CMA), responded to plans to reform the regulation of Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAMs) in Australia, by having it independently tested and labelled accordingly. In other words; this product has been tested and it was found that it does not work! One can imagine that a company like Blackmores, who has recently donated $10 million to the National Institute of Complimentary Medicine (NICM), will not approve of this idea, as this implies that they will have to label 90% plus of their products as ineffective. But then only if their products are truly independently tested.  And hence, the CAM industry is in all likelihood lobbying with the NICM, for the NICM to become this ‘independent’ testing facility.

The problem is rather obvious, the NICM is not independent at all. They receive huge sums of money from the CAM industry, they are listed as an associate organisation of the CMA, they sponsor organisations such as the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association who peddles all sorts of disproven and unproven CAMs, and in return Carl Gibson sits on the NICMs advisory board.  The Directors of the Blackmores Institute are are also both listed as adjuncts of the NICM etc. etc. A very good example of their inability to accept that a specific CAM simply does not work, is Carl Gibson’s rather aggressive response to the NHMRC’s report that Homeopathy is ineffective. The NICM published a more measured, but similar response. They just won’t accept the NHMRC’s recommendations regarding homeopathy – you can read their response here. Surely, there are some serious question marks around the NICMs independence?

But having said that, all of these organisations and people work in unison by lobbying extremely hard to be able to expand their range of mostly ineffective products, specifically targeting Asian countries.  That this is exactly what they are up to, can be seen by Carl’s little slip-up. The whole program was about the unproven and disproven nature of the CAM industry’s products and this is what he had to say about it. Here is an unedited excerpt from the transcript:

“GEOFF THOMPSON: Lobbying continues against any labelling system which would make unproven products look bad.

CARL GIBSON: We have a growing international trade. So if you’re an Asian consumer and you pick up 2 products identical and the NZ product doesn’t have that disclaimer and our does I think you’re actually disadvantaging the Australians.

ASSOC. PROFESSOR KEN HARVEY: The challenge will be to see who wins. Will industry lobbying destroy any reform yet again or will the weight of time, the pressure from consumer groups and health professional groups and others actually mean that this time, something might happen? I’m not holding my breath.”

So, what does Carl Gibson say? – allow me to translate. “We know damn well that most of our products does not work and in effect that it should not be sold to the public. But, we don’t give a hoot because it is all about money, and if we don’t bullshit the Asians, somebody else will, in this case the Kiwis!”

It will be interesting to see how these regulatory reforms will unfold over the next couple of months or maybe years, and how the different role players will try and influence the process. But, like Prof Harvey said, we should not hold our breaths for any significant reforms!

What can you do about all of this?

The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex, so the best thing to do is to stop using their products and treatments – e.g. prevention. 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. I have also started a FaceBook page where I regularly post contents regarding the NICM, and complementary medicine in general (@CompleMedQuacks).

Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon awards (the NICM has again been nominated), and please, ‘Like’ and share this article via FaceBook etc. – see options below.

“Swallowing It!” The ABC’s ‘Four Corners’ takes a look at the Australian vitamin and supplement industry. And the NICM’s role in all of this?  

Swallowing it: How Australians are spending billions on unproven vitamins and supplements.” A catchy title and a very important subject to investigate. It is however unfortunate that the term ‘unproven’ is used, instead of ‘disproven’. There is a major difference between these two terms.  The former means that vitamins and (mineral) supplements has not been tested, and therefore it is unknown if it is beneficial or not, whilst the latter indicate that it has been tested, to infinity and beyond, and it was shown not to be beneficial for most people, but for a select small group of people and for very specific conditions (e.g. vegans, pregnant women etc.). In reality, it has been tested, over and over – very little benefit and it might even carry a risk. It is therefore mainly disproven.

Herbal supplements are somewhat different. Many, such as St Johns Wort and Gingko biloba, have been tested thoroughly, whilst many haven’t. Therefore, we have a combination of unproven and disproven herbal supplements and very few that might actually be beneficial. Having said that: this does not matter one iota for the Complementary Medicine (CM) Empire – they just couldn’t care less. Why do I call them an Empire? Because of the remarkable similarities between their modus operandi and that of the well-known gangster, Al Capone. You can read about it here and here.

To say that a specific CM does not work, and that the public should stop taking it, is for these people totally unacceptable.  Here is a simple example of how it works:

A large clinical trial, called SELECT, (involving more than 35 000 men) was conducted to test if Vitamin E and Selenium prevents prostate cancer. It was stopped prematurely because not only did it not prevent prostate cancer (no benefit), there were, although not significant, “….more cases of prostate cancer in men taking only vitamin E” (indicating that it might actually be harmful). Based on this information, any responsible scientist will now conclude that the benefit of taking this supplement for the prevention of prostate cancer has now been disproven (no benefit and it might even be dangerous). Simple stuff.

Therefore the ‘National Cancer Institute’ in the US provides this information on their website; “Should men take vitamin E or selenium supplements for cancer prevention?  No. Scientists do not understand how these supplements really work and more importantly, the interactions that these supplements have together or with foods, drugs, or other supplements. There are no clinical trials that show a benefit from taking vitamin E or selenium to reduce the risk of prostate cancer or any other cancer or heart disease.”

Although the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), in Australia, did not take part in the SELECT trial, they felt compelled to release a press statement regarding the trial outcome. Whenever a negative (no benefit) result is published that might influence the sales figure of their main sponsors, they will react. In a long, and somewhat confusing, statement the NICM reaches the following conclusion and recommendation “….the precautionary principle would suggest that men over 50 and any man over 40 with a family history of prostate cancer should avoid selenium and vitamin E supplementation at doses that exceed recommended dietary intakes if not prescribed by a health professional.”

In other words; continue to buy the stuff that our sponsors sell. The well-known Australian supplement company, Blackmores, who has given the NICM more than $5 million in 2016, happily continues to sell these supplements to the Australian public. Asking Blackmores online Naturopath about the products for men with prostate issues, this is what they recommended “Blackmores has a product called Prostate Health Formula which contains both vitamin E and selenium along with a few other ingredients. Here is the product link for your information:  https://www.blackmores.com.au/products/prostate-health-formula. Frank, if you require any further information please contact the Naturopathic Advisory Service at advice@blackmores.com.au

So, is the naturopathic advisory service the ‘health professional’ that the NICM refers to in their statement?

This is a simple example of how it works. These people (and I have to exclude those very few that are conducting unbiased research into CAM’s) cannot accept that most CAM’s doesn’t have any benefit, some are dangerous and very few might be beneficial. If they do, and advise the public accordingly, their whole empire will collapse. And as usual; it is all about money and therefore it might be a good idea to keep an eye on the share price, before and after the Four Corners program airs, of the main producer of these products in Australia, Blackmores. It just might give us an indication if this program will have any sort of impact.

The Four Corners program airs tonight (13/02/2017) at 8:30 pm (AEST) but will also be archived on their website, that you can find here.