Issue 26 / 11 July 2016

THE suffering invalids of the 19th century were fortunate in the marvelous cures available to them.

The extraordinary Sands’s Sarsparilla tonic, for example, offered a “radical and permanent cure” for swelling of the glands, diseases of the bones, joints and ligaments, rheumatism, obstinate cutaneous eruptions, ringworm, pimples and pustules, fever, stubborn ulcers, secondary syphilitic symptoms, dropsy… Shall I go on?

The days of the miracle cure are not over. Rather than travelling from town to town spruiking their patent medicines, today’s would-be healers set up their booths in the virtual reality of the internet.

If you haven’t been keeping up with the latest medical evidence, you may be unaware that goji berries offer a natural treatment for skin cancer, diabetes, hypertension, glaucoma, macular degeneration, infectious diseases and the common cold.

Or that peppermint essential oil can fight cancer, migraine, musculoskeletal problems, fibromyalgia, cold sores, asthma, psoriasis, hair loss, irritable bowel syndrome and flatulence. And it can help you lose weight.

Or that coffee enemas can help treat cancer (yes, cancer always seems to be on the list), digestive problems, depression, arthritis and pain just about anywhere, as well as increasing happiness, reducing anger, and addressing the “general toxicity” that causes most disease.

Personally, I think my happiness is more likely to be enhanced by taking my caffeine hit orally but, as any of these websites would be keen to point out, I’m just a tool of the medical establishment/Big Pharma conspiracy that seeks to keep life-saving remedies from the suffering public.

Thanks to the internet, we now have access to a wealth of information beyond anything previous generations could have dreamed of. Sadly, we don’t always use our online riches well.

Data journalist David McCandless has created a thought-provoking infographic that shows how wrong things can go when it comes to “natural” remedies.

McCandless ranks health supplements by both the strength of the evidence backing them (he includes links to relevant papers) and their popularity in online searches.

As you might expect, the top section of the graphic, where the supplements with strong evidence appear, is almost empty, containing only St John’s wort for depression and coffee for heart disease.

By contrast, the bottom half of the graphic, below the “worth it” line, is so crowded it’s hard to distinguish all the individual remedies.

Among the most searched for supplements in this evidence-free zone are green tea (two appearances, for cancer prevention and cholesterol reduction), garlic (three appearances, for cancer prevention, colds and blood pressure reduction), black tea (also for cancer prevention) and coffee (dementia).

Goji berries are also there, registering an abject fail for their claims to improve eye health.

There are too many other failures to list here, but a sample of the dishonour roll includes cinnamon for diabetes, cranberry juice for urinary tract infections, selenium for cancer, turmeric for cancer, spirulina for blood pressure and cholesterol, and fish oil/omega 3 for dementia, asthma, diabetes and Crohn’s disease.

That’s not to say none of these things work, but they can’t demonstrate they do through actual evidence, at least that McCandless has been able to identify.

What the graphic really highlights is the frequent mismatch between evidence and public enthusiasm. St John’s wort may top the list for its evidence base but it attracts less than half the online interest of spirulina, which has not yet shown any evidence to back its claimed cardiovascular benefits.

Sadly, when it comes to our health, many of us seem to remain as gullible as the 19th century punters who thought a draught of lolly water, with perhaps a slug of alcohol, could eradicate their venereal disease along with their lumbago.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and health writer.

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6 thoughts on “We’re as gullible as ever

  1. Dr Ken Harvey says:

    The gullibility of the public would be reduced if the Federal government acted on advice given by its own expert committees. For example, the Health Minister Susan Ley ignored the findings of the 2015 report on the “Review of the Australian Government Rebate on Private Health Insurance (the rebate) for Natural Therapies” (which found they lacked the evidence required to justify their subsidy).

    In addition, she has none nothing to implement the 58 recommendations of the “Expert review of medicines and medical devices regulation” conducted by Emeritus Professor Lloyd Sansom AO, Mr Will Delaat AM and Professor John Horvath AO that reported in March & July last year. These included recommendations that sponsors of complementary medicine must make public the evidence purporting to support their claims and that there should be timely and effective penalties for those who breach the regulations. 

    Without effective penalties we continue to have lamentable results from post-marketing reviews of listed complementary medicines undertaken by the TGA. For example, from Jan 2015 to Feb 2016 the TGA reviewed 330 products: 66% of products from 208 random reviews were found non-compliant with the regulations while 87% of 122 targeted reviews were non-compliant. Most violations concerned lack of evidence, advertising and labelling but there were also problems with manufacturing, quality and/or formulation. This is the end result of a system with no pre-market evaluation of listed complementary products and light-touch regulation. 

    I note speculation that Ms Ley will be shifted sideways for a more effective health minister in the new government.

  2. Dr Malcolm Mackay says:

    My go to for sorting the myths from the evidence is Michael Greger MD’s website, http://www.nutritionfacts.org

    He has produced hundreds of short videos, each looking at the recent research on that topic.

    I have learnt, for example that dairy foods do not reduce fracture risk and that fish oil is ineffective against heart disease. On the other hand turmeric has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects.

  3. randal williams says:

    This is a particular hobby horse of mine.

    Because these remedies are marketed as foods or food supplements they escape the regulations which govern the marketing of medications. In SA there is a company that markets such therapies as Thyroid Builder ( “may help support thyroid function’–delightfully vague and impossible to disprove ) ‘Prostate-eze max’,  and ‘Collagen Builder,’ as well as Vitamin D melts for children.

    Of course there are the usual disclaimers and a promise of ‘100% money back guarantee’. To get money back  you have to send the product back to the parent company ( at your own expense) and prove that it didnt work–no one is going to go to this trouble for a $20 product, and of course they know it.

    ” Natural” is the keyword, exploiting the New Age idea that anything ‘natural ‘must be good ( snakebite, poisonous plants, bacteria,  viruses and parasites ?? ).

    Regrettably, pharmacists actively promote thses products and take part in the charade; At the same time they want more authority to prescribe and treat—hardly objective and with obvious conflict of interest.

  4. Andrew Crawford says:

    Perhaps the AMA should treat this situation as an opportunity to improve the public’s health literacy and improve the reputation of the profession.  Launch a campaign like the chiro campaign, this time based on “helping hardworking Aussie families save over $500/year”  Get some figures on the average placebo spend per year and then start outing those profiting from gullible honest families.  We know the suspects – Blackmores , Swisse, etc.  Seek to provoke them into strong response and then agree to end the criticism when the evidence is shown.  No evidence -> continue to call them quacks taking money from hardworking families.  Here’s a chance for the AMA to present itself as the friend of Aussie families, rather than as the doctors’ union.

  5. randal williams says:

    I agree with “anonymous’ 11/7/16–companies like Blackmore, Swisse and Caruso have to be called  to provide proper evidence for their claims–using a celebrity to spruik doesnt count !  .  “!00% money back guarantee”  is worthless and meaningless. The evidence push will have to come ultimately from Government but the AMA can be the driver.

  6. Mike says:

    Gullible is a great word… credulous too. Doctors should learn what they mean when being seduced by the clever marketing BS of drug companies.

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