Save Us From Alternative Medicine!

  • Share
  • Read Later
For devotees of alternative medicine, 2002 ended on a sour note, one of many they heard during the year. In December, researchers at the University of Wisconsin reported the results of a double-blind test of echinacea, a popular herbal remedy for the common cold. They gave capsules of the herb to 73 students suffering from the common cold. Another 75 students were given a placebo, dummy pills containing only alfalfa. The results: "Compared with the placebo," the researchers reported, "unrefined echinacea provided no detectable benefit or harm." In fact, those students taking the placebo remained sick for an average of 5.75 days, compared with 6.27 days for those on the herb. Some remedy!

Other double blind tests, some funded by the National Institutes of Health, concluded that St. John's Wort doesn't relieve depression, and actually interferes with certain cancer drugs. In another rigorous trial involving people over 60 investigators concluded that ginko biloba doesn't enhance memory.

Even worse, mounting reports about heart attacks, strokes and a hundred or so deaths among users of ephedra, a herbal stimulant widely used in diet aids and energy boosters, has led the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Metabolife, a leading seller of ephedra-bearing remedies, The company is charged with lying when it denied ever receiving reports about "any serious health event" in users of its products.

Investigations aside, why can't the Federal Government simply step in to aid consumers who are wasting billions of dollars a year on "remedies" that are ineffective at best, and occasionally harmful? The answer lies in the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which was passed by Congress after extensive lobbying by the health food industry. Its passage was eased by the strong support of such medically illiterate politicians as Senator Tom Harkin (who believes in the healing powers of bee pollen), Senator Orrin Hatch (whose state of Utah is a hub for herbal manufacturers) and Representative Dan Burton (the most rabid Congressional opponent of vaccination). The act allows natural supplements to be marketed without any proof of their purity, safety or efficacy. Producers of these supplements are largely exempt from regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, which can take action against them only if they make claims about their products curing or alleviating disease — or if, say, their customers start dropping dead.

The solution to this egregious scam on the American consumer may have been provided, inadvertently, by Senator Trent Lott, when his off-base remarks led to his replacement as majority leader of the new Senate by Tennessee's Bill Frist. Medically trained and a skilled surgeon, Senator Frist must certainly be aware of the mysticism, greed and sheer fraud rampant in the alternative medicine field. And he now has the clout to do something about it. He could bring honor to himself and to Congress by spearheading repeal of the shameful Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.