MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Can anyone think of celebrities promoting conventional treatments? Jane Fonda advertising blood pressure control?  Brad Pit advocating early intervention after stroke? Boris Johnson making sure that diabetics check their metabolic control? Angelina Jollie suggesting that we all immunise our kids?  Well, I cannot – not many anyway. But I certainly could list numerous VIPs doing their very best to promote quackery and anti-vaccination propaganda.

We may smile about such vain attempts to catch the lime-light, but the influence of celebrities on consumers’ behaviour might be huge and detrimental. It is difficult to estimate, and I am not aware of much reliable research data in this area. But my instinct tells me that, in the realm of alternative medicine, the ‘celebrity-factor’ is a very strong determinant of alternative medicine usage, and one that significantly contributes to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in this area.

With one of our research projects at Exeter, we wanted to identify reports on celebrities’ use of alternative medicine. We searched our department’s extensive data files, the Internet via the Google search engine, and the UK popular press via LexisNexis using the search terms “celebrity”, “alternative medicine” and “complementary medicine”. We considered articles published during 2005 and 2006 for inclusion in our study.

Using this strategy, we identified 38 celebrities using a wide range of alternative medicine interventions. Homeopathy, acupuncture and Ayurveda were the most popular modalities. The conclusion we drew from this investigation was that there may be many reasons why consumers use alternative medicine, and wanting to imitate their idols is one of them.

Some pro-alternative sites even boast with the fact that celebrities use quackery: Oprah is into it; so are Madonna, Uma and Gwyneth. No, it’s not a club for high-profile women with unique names. It’s alternative medicine. As ABC News describes, alternative medicine remains an option outside of “standard care” practices that physicians employ. But it has had a sweeping effect on the country, and celebrities have played a role in its popularity.

This, I think, indicates that celebrities are being used as a marketing tool for the alternative medicine industry. Both seem to feed of each other: the industry turns the celebrity endorsements into profit, and the celebrities turn the interest of the press into the all-important fame needed for remaining a celebrity. If a star displays her shapely back in a low-cut dress, nobody bats an eyelash; if, however, her back is covered with marks from today’s cupping-therapy, the press goes crazy – and, as a consequence, cupping therapy experiences a boost. The fact that there is no good evidence for this treatment becomes entirely irrelevant, and so is the fact that thousands of people will hence forward waste their money on ineffective treatments, some of them possibly even losing valuable time for curing a life-threatening disease.

Who wants such a pedestrian thing as evidence? We are in the realm of the high-fliers who cannot be bothered with such trivialities – unless, of course, they are really ill, in which case they will not consult their local quack but use the best conventional medicine on offer. Has anyone heard of a member of the Royal family being rushed to a homeopathic hospital when acutely ill?

In my experience, a VIP’s conviction in promoting quackery is inversely correlated to his expertise and intelligence. Prince Charles seems to want the entire British nation to be force-fed on quackery – anything from Gerson diet to homeopathy. He knows virtually nothing about medicine, but makes up for this deficit through a strong and quasi-religious belief in quackery. Scientists tend to laugh about his quest and might say with a slightly pitiful smile “but he is full of good will!”. Yet I am not sure that it is all that funny, nor am I convinced that good will is enough. Misleading the public about matters of health care is not amusing. And good will and conviction render quacks not less but more dangerous.

13 Responses to Drowing in a sea of misinformation. Part 7: celebrities

  • it’s true there aren’t many celebrities that advocate EBM, but let’s give names and praise to those who do – Amanda Peet, Jennifer Lopez, Kristi Yamaguchi, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Garner, Kerri Russell , Marissa Jaret Winokur, and all those who are faces of End Polio Now http://thisclose.endpolio.org/en, Patrick Swayze who haven’t embraced any quackery…

  • Everyday you have it in the news, that this or that celebrity cannot even manage the affairs of his or her own – drug and alcohol abuse, violence, poor relationships, financial mismanagement, drunk driving …
    What is the implication, if they use CAM?

  • It irked me to no end when Pete Townshend appeared on an American talk show(chat show?) and credited homeopathy with helping him with his hearing loss. He even mentioned the “doctor” who was helping him by name.

    Actor Josh Duhamel and model Fabio are shilling for Stan Burzynski.

    Jenny McCarthy and her ex-husband Jim Carrey are at the forefront of the anti-vaccine movement. More recently, washed-up “comedian” Rob Schneider has joined them as an anti-vax scaremonger. Ironically and hypocritically, McCarthy is now endorsing a brand of e-cigarette on television.

    And of course the grande dame of alternative nonsense is Suzanne Somers, who has promoted every manner of quackery and has proven herself to be scientifically-illiterate.

    (I’m not sure how well-known these American “celebrities” are in the UK. Suzanne Somers is an irrelevant B-actress has-been who has written a slew of books and is a crusader for everything “alternative” on talk shows and her own infomercials.)

    • Just a tiny nit to pick: McCarthy and Carrey were never married and Carrey seems to have disentangled himself from shilling for anti-vaxxers–not that that excuses his former actions, unless he comes out with a public retraction.

  • Forgot one more: a member of rock band Def Leppard has publicly spoken out in favour of Gerson therapy to treat cancer.

  • Let’s not forget one of the biggest “celebrity” pushers of CAM…Dr. Oz.

    He seems dedicated to promoting any pseudo-scientific treatment, supplement, or product.

  • I used to think people probably didn’t generally see much of Dr Oz here in the UK, but he is now a regular columnist for Top Santé magazine and their resident doctor.

    http://www.janedruker.co.uk/beauty/editors-letter-top-sante-july/

  • ‘This, I think, indicates that celebrities are being used as a marketing tool for the alternative medicine industry.’

    I have no doubt whatsoever. Some real barrel-scraping out there.

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