MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Yes, to a large extend, quacks make a living by advertising lies. A paper just published confirms our worst fears.

This survey was aimed at identifying the frequency and qualitative characteristics of marketing claims made by Canadian chiropractors, naturopaths, homeopaths and acupuncturists relating to the diagnosis and treatment of allergy and asthma.

A total of 392 chiropractic, naturopathic, homeopathic and acupuncture clinic websites were located in 10 of the largest metropolitan areas in Canada. The main outcome measures were: mention of allergy, sensitivity or asthma, claim of ability to diagnose allergy, sensitivity or asthma, claim of ability to treat allergy, sensitivity or asthma, and claim of allergy, sensitivity or asthma treatment efficacy. Tests and treatments promoted were noted as qualitative examples.

The results show that naturopath clinic websites had the highest rates of advertising at least one of diagnosis, treatment or efficacy for allergy or sensitivity (85%) and asthma (64%), followed by acupuncturists (68% and 53%, respectively), homeopaths (60% and 54%) and chiropractors (33% and 38%). Search results from Vancouver were most likely to advertise at least one of diagnosis, treatment or efficacy for allergy or sensitivity (72.5%) and asthma (62.5%), and results from London, Ontario were least likely (50% and 40%, respectively). Of the interventions advertised, few are scientifically supported; the majority lack evidence of efficacy, and some are potentially harmful.

[Legend to figure above: Percentage of alternative medicine clinic websites advertising at least one of diagnosis, treatment or efficacy for allergy/sensitivity or asthma. Presenting the data in this way demonstrates that the Canadian naturopath, homeopath and acupuncturist websites studied have >50% rates of making at least one health-related claim for both allergy/sensitivity and asthma.]

The authors concluded that the majority of alternative healthcare clinics studied advertised interventions for allergy and asthma. Many offerings are unproven. A policy response may be warranted in order to safeguard the public interest.

In the discussion section, the authors state: “These claims raise ethical issues, because evidence in support of many of the tests and treatments identified on the websites studied is lacking. For example, food-specific IgG testing was commonly advertised, despite the fact that the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology has recommended not to use this test due to the absence of a body of research supporting it. Live blood analysis, vega/electrodiagnostic testing, intravenous vitamin C, probiotics, homeopathic allergy remedies and several other tests and treatments offered all lack substantial scientific evidence of efficacy. Some of the proposed treatments are so absurd that they lack even the most basic scientific plausibility, such as ionic foot bath detoxification…

Perhaps most concerning is the fact that several proposed treatments for allergy, sensitivity or asthma are potentially harmful. These include intravenous hydrogen peroxide, spinal manipulation and possibly others. Furthermore, a negative effect of the use of invalid and inaccurate allergy testing is the likelihood that such testing will lead to alterations and exclusions in diets, which can subsequently result in malnutrition and other physiological problems…”

This survey originates from Canada, and one might argue that elsewhere the situation is not quite as bad. However, I would doubt it; on the contrary, I would not be surprised to learn that, in some other countries, it is even worse.

Several national regulators have, at long last, become aware of the dangers of advertising of outright quackery. Consequently, some measures are now beginning to be taken against it. I would nevertheless argue that these actions are far too slow and by no means sufficiently effective.

We easily forget that asthma, for instance, is a potentially life-threatening disease. Advertising of bogus claims is therefore  much more than a forgivable exaggeration aimed at maximising the income of alternative practitioners – it is a serious threat to public health.

We must insist that regulators protect us from such quackery and prevent the serious harm it can do.

26 Responses to (Canadian) quacks advertise lies

  • This is, bluntly, fraud. The Good Thinking Society have done a good job on homeopathy in the UK, perhaps the next campaign should be to address advertisements to diagnose or treat serious illness. The ASA has ruled on hundreds of quacks’ websites where they do this, and it really is time to stop them form advertising to anyone other than the worried well.

  • “This survey originates from Canada, and one might argue that elsewhere the situation is not quite as bad. However, I would doubt it; on the contrary, I would not be surprised to learn that, in some other countries, it is even worse.”

    Canada has a federal system. Some regulatory powers exist at a national level, others at a provincial level. There can be some grey areas. The situation does vary between provinces. The same situation exists in both the US and Australia to a greater or lesser degree.

  • It so happens that, this weekend, I looked at ONE Toronto website about coffee enemas. What I found, was incompatible with reality as we currently know it, and have known it for a hundred years or so.

    The sad thing is, in my opinion, that we don’t actually need any regulations to protect the public. What we need is the abolishment of regulations that have the protection of quacks and swindlers of various stripes as their purpose.

  • The UK’s GMC was set up precisely to protect the public from quacks, quackery, healthcare fraud and from practitioners making unsubstantiated healthcare claims.
    The GMC can only regulate its own registrants – who are obliged to be honest and practice with integrity (always obtaining fully informed consent about proposed modalities of treatment would be a start).

    The public should better understand this – and should hold to the null hypothesis that a health practitioner is a quack seeking to take advantage of the vulnerable and gullible and having nothing of value to offer, unless and until proved otherwise.

    The government, and the media, have a responsibility to ensure the public understand this.
    ‘Post gnosis, caveat emptor.’

    It remains beyond my comprehension how it is that Canada (and some other North American states) allows naturopaths (and others with no medical qualification) to practice as if they are ‘primary care physicians’.
    And to think EBM was formulated as such in Canada.
    Back to the eighteenth century.
    Sigh.

  • You seem to be struggling to provide a reasonable response to a what is a very important issue concerning patient safety or you are simply just ducking the issue. If the content of that video is factual, then it pales into insignificance the points you have raised in this particular blog about complementary medicine

    • what is ‘struggling’ about refusing to engage with someone who has repeatedly demonstrated his irrationality?
      I think that is mere common sense, don’t you?

    • Colin, you keep couching his terms in conditional statements. e.g. “If the content of that video is factual”

      This suggests that you’re not sure.

      So…

      Vaccines don’t cause autism. The study that started all that was retracted and the person responsible was found guilty of fraud and striped of his credentials. The content in the video is not factual. There is no response needed from Prof Ernst to that. There is no valid patient safety concern presented in the video.

      Finally, this post is about the advertising claims of chiropractors, naturopaths, homeopaths and acupuncturists in Canada. What does your desired conversation have to do with any of that?

      • Citizen Gold,

        Thank you for your comment because it much better states my thoughts:

        “If the content of that video is factual, then it pales into insignificance the points you have raised in this particular blog about complementary medicine.”

        is exactly the same illogic as

        “If the Moon is made of cheese, then it pales into insignificance current science and evidence.”

        The content of that video is NOT factual; and the Moon is NOT made of cheese. So, what is Colin actually trying to do — other than, yet again, revelling in demonstrating his foolishness?

    • If the content of that video is factual, then it pales into insignificance the points you have raised in this particular blog about complementary medicine

      But it isn’t. It’s just the usual litany of lies and deceit spread by the pro-diseasers.

  • Anyone who has visited Canada would know that it is home to many common loons.

  • It seems that a profit motive exists throughout healthcare(including “modern medicine”) to the point that exaggerations and misinformation are promulgated to entice customers to a particular product. According to J Lexchin, such malignant acitivirties are prevalent among medical drug companies. In his article published in the Int J Clin Prac in 2010, he writes: The literature reviewed here supports the contention made in the Introduction that pharmaceutical companies misuse statistics in their advertisements to present their products in a favourable light. Except in Canada, they almost never use ARRs or number need to treat, they omit confidence intervals and information about the power of studies they cite and they cite research that often has methodological problems. Magazine and television DTC advertisements also use statistics in a misleading manner although this form of advertising has not been as well studied as medical journal advertisements.

    It appears that medical quacks advertise lies, too.

    Be well

    • The medicines industry is regulated. If they make false claims, they get genuine penalties. Quacks have lobbied assiduously for freedom from such regulations, with stunning success in the US. The FDA can’t even look into the claims of quacks until there is solid evidence that people have already been harmed.

      But fundamentally, medicine works, and quackery doesn’t. Any homeopath is totally dependent on lies to sell their services.

      • @Guy

        “The medicines industry is regulated. If they make false claims, they get genuine penalties,” states Guy. The lies proferred by Big Pharma might eventually cost the companies’ passive investors some stock value, but the lies often cost people their lives. Would you care to bet that drug companies’ lies have cost more lives in the last 10 years than have chiropractic malpractice situations? The GSK-Paxil situation is a fine example of quack research by a pillar (i.e. a drug manufacturer) of “modern midicine.” Many young lives were lost; it appears that medicine does work, sometimes in ways that are unbeknownst to MD’s because of fraudulent/quack research and meretricious conclusions of drug-company researchers.

      • Any homeopath is totally dependent on lies to sell their services.

        Not only homeopaths, but others who are not usually counted among the quacks – but are – as wel. Not long ago, in Belgium, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was refused official status.

        The explanation used by the government was that it is a mockery, not a real religion. This means that in order to get recognition and protection under the law, you therefore have to prove that you are a genuine liar, swindler, i.e. quack. Play-acting won’t do. I have some problems with such reasoning.

        I think it is a nice example of the problems inherent to our democracy. While I would be hard-pressed to come up with an alternative, I can’t help but ask: is ignorance really such a good basis for a system of government?

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