Wander into your local Australian pharmacy any day of the week and stacked alongside the legitimate, science-based medicines, you will find all manner of snake oils and magic potions. From the relatively innocuous vitamin and mineral supplements (although evidence for their efficacy remains controversial), to the more bizarre like iridology, homeopathy and my personal favourite, ear candles. Need professional advice about which woo is best for you? Well, in Australia, many pharmacies have a consultant naturopath or ND (Not a Doctor?), whom you can usually consult free of charge.

Unfortunately, there is way too much “woo” to cover in this short segment, so I’ve chosen to present my top three in some detail from most ridiculous to purely preposterous. You can see a list of some of my other bug bears at the end of this blog.

Sit tight, try not to get too angry and let’s begin.

Ear candles

A personal favourite of mine. The practice of ear candling involves placing a long candle in your ear, lighting the far end and supposedly a vacuum is created, drawing wax from your ears. Some practitioners will also tell you they draw out bad energy. As our good friend Loretta Marron, (the “Jelly Bean lady”) says, be careful when walking past a session of this nonsense, you might be struck by unexpected “negative energy”. In my opinion, (and Simon Singh agrees), the only thing these are good for are dripping wax in your ears and setting fire to your curtains. Unfortunately in Australia, this product is listed with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), giving them undue legitimacy. Good grief.

Iridology

Iridology originated with the Hungarian physician, Ignatz von Peczely, back in the 1860s. He was treating a broken leg when he noticed a dark streak in the patient’s eye. Years before, von Peczely had accidentally broken the leg of an owl and he remembered that it too had a dark streak in exactly the same place on the iris (pardon?). He then spent years mapping marks in patients’ irises, which he associated with various illnesses and this resulted in a variation on the iridologists map of the eye still used by practitioners today.

This sandwich board sits outside my local pharmacy. Upon calling I was told by a very helpful assistant that I could see Mercedes free of charge any time I liked!

Upon enquiring, I was told by a very helpful assistant that I could see "Mercedes" free of charge anytime.

Just like Feng Shui consultations, large variability exists between iridologists when it comes to diagnosis. These people are afraid of wheat it seems, and will usually advise some kind of special diet. A report from a GP posing undercover as a tired teacher, Professor Max Kamien, demonstrates the fancifulness of this practice.

Homeopathy

Don’t get me started on these water and sugar pills. Homeopathy was invented by Samuel Hahnemann back in the 18th century. Based on the concept of “like treats like”, a concentrated solution of the toxin is “sucussed” (i.e., shaken vigorously), to instill the memory of the original substance in the solution. This “mother tincture” is then diluted extensively, to beyond the point where there is any possibility that molecules from the original solution are present in the final product. Richard Dawkins describes this in his wonderful documentary “Enemies of Reason”, as like a drop of the active ingredient in all the oceans. Hence, you are buying very expensive water.

Expensive water, may contain traces of sugar

Expensive water, may contain traces of sugar

The most heinous thing about homeopathy is the marketing of homeopathic vaccines and medicine for children and babies. Cures for cholic are bad enough, but in a most disgusting example of deceit in 2006, an Australian manufacturer of natural and homeopathic medicine, was forced to withdraw a vaccine for Meningococcal disease, a rapid onset and often fatal bacterial infection causing meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord) and/or septicaemia (blood poisoning). Keep in mind that according to the NSW Government Department of Health website, those most at risk of contracting meningococcal are; “infants, small children, adolescents and young adults”.

This media coverage and subsequent withdrawal of this product, was partly due to whistle blowing by the Australian Skeptics who in 2005 produced a press release after being informed at the Parents, Babies and Children’s Expo in Sydney that you could vaccinate your children with homeopathic preparations.

So why be so concerned about this?

If in the case of homeopathy this stuff does nothing, shouldn’t we just leave it alone? Absolutely not. In fact homeopathy can do harm, since it does NOTHING at all. So whilst you may think your baby is vaccinated from the fatal meningococcoal C strain, they are in fact at risk of DYING. Putting this woo alongside pharmaceutical, science-based medicine IMMEDIATELY lends it legitimacy. We can’t expect the lay person to distinguish between what works and what doesn’t work, when all these medicines are presented under the guise of a respected, university educated pharmacist.

“The community holds pharmacists in especially high regard and places its trust in pharmacists’ professional judgment, and relies on pharmacists’ professional advice. Because a recommendation by any pharmacist for any medicine gives that medicine special credibility, it is essential that the recommendation is soundly and scientifically based”. From Pharmacy Board Bulletin VIII

There is no evidence that these things do anything useful

There is no evidence that these things do anything useful

In Australia, pharmacists undergo very similar training to science graduates, so why do these well qualified, science literate, respected members of the community tolerate quackery in their dispensaries? Well in Australia at least part of the problem is large manufacturers of natural medicines also own chains of pharmacies. For example, in sunny Queensland, Nature’s Own, makers of Bio-organics, Golden Glow, Natural Nutrition, Cenovis and Vitelle are brand names owned by Symbion Health, which in turn owns the trading names Chemmart, Terry White Chemists, and the brand name Pharmacy Choice. So, it is in their interests to promote all their products and what better way to do it than through the respected, white coated pharmacist. It purely and simply, a money making exercise.

In a recent conversation with the respected neurologist, president of the New England Skeptical Society and distinguished podcaster, Dr Steven Novella, he expressed his surprise that more scientists and doctors didn’t get angry about this stuff. Well, this little black duck does, and perhaps that’s where we can start the tide turning. The biggest problem in Australia lies with the legislation, where woo can get a government listing, providing immediate credibility. This is why we need people like Loretta Marron, also known as “the terror of the TGA” to continue to campaign on our behalves.

“Pharmacists who recommend alternative medicines to consumers must be appropriately and properly trained. Additionally, recommendations may be made only according to the principles of evidence-based medicine. So as to assist pharmacists in the evaluation of published papers, it recommends completion of a course of critical appraisal of scientific literature. As part of proper training”. From Pharmacy Board Bulletin VIII

And sadly it seems the “woo” is not limited to natural medicines. I was in a pharmacy on the Northern Beaches of Sydney some time ago, and was shocked to see Sylvia Brown books for sale alongside the twee porcelain gifts. I kid you not. And there ain’t nothing scientific about that…

——

Other woo you can find in Australian Pharmacies that gets my goat:

Magnetic Aids
Homeopathy diagnosis machine
All manner of weight loss “medicines”
Detox kits
Bach Flower medicine

Footnote: Australian Pharmacies were awarded the Bent Spoon Award in 2006 by the Australian Skeptics

The hero of fighting woo in pharmacies in Australia is Loretta Marron, otherwise known as “The Jelly Bean Lady”.

Further reading: Trick or Treatment, by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst.


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  • @alexbrown your comment was removed because your URL was flagged as a phishing website.

  • AndyD

    I’ve done it on my own blog but I think it’s only fair that I thank Trevor here for bringing Loretta to my attention. Her A Current Affair Cancer Quack bust deserves as much publicity as it can get.
    .
    Thanks Trevor – but seriously, thanks Loretta.

  • Steve

    Trevor, you are so wrong about so many things, but to save space I’ll just take up the first one – there are NOT many people like Loretta Marron. On the other hand, and unfortunately, there ARE many people like you.

  • Hi Trevor,

    Do you offer any cures for breast cancer?

  • I’m adding this comment for Barry, who is a N00b to the internetz 🙂 He emailed me and asked me to add it.

    —-

    Trevor, you really are a nasty piece of work, aren’t you. I know Loretta Marron and admire her for her courage and dedication. She was successfully treated for breast cancer by the best techniques available to medical science after suffering from the dubious treatments and false hope offered by people with ND and the like after their names.
    .

    Had she relied on your brand of magic, I have no doubt she would no longer be with us. You should be ashamed.
    .
    Barry Williams.

  • AndyD

    ND? Not a Doctor?

  • Trevor Savage ND

    Skepticism occurs when only the logic brain is functioning. Half a brain = halfwit. There are many people like Loretta Marron the 2007 Skeptic of the Year who is so proud of the stress she creates by being the anonymous complainant to the TGA and CRP that she requests that her name is not given out to the people she makes complaints about. She is so proud of this fact however Board Members of The CRP are happy to divulge her name, just ask them about Loretta Marron from Burpengary. Over 800 complaints? Is she really a serious oxygen user? I don’t think so. She calls herself a breast cancer survivor – well her day will come and she will too pass away, and when she has ceased her dirty work some other pleb will take her place. Sure in 2011 everyone is smart enough to use both sides of their brain to make their own decisions. We don’t need miss feeble brain to be our baby sitter!

  • Hi Grant, The Australian Skeptics produced an “Open Letter to Australian Pharmacists”. You can find the pdf here. Please feel free to use or rewrite or distribute this at your will!

    http://www.skeptics.com.au/media/0903pharmacists.pdf

  • grant

    On one of the skeptic zone podcasts, ( I can’t find it or a blog entry) there was mention of a form that somebody created for presenting to pharmacies that have non-evidence based rubbish remedies. Do you recall how I could find this; nothing showing up when I google?

    Reason I ask, is that this same issue seems to be popping up here in New Zealand. It certainly irritates me when I go into a chemist & see homeopathic water for sale; in some cases for more than conventional medicine.

    A NZ doctor has written an article published in the local pharmacy magazine:
    http://www.pharmacy-today.co.nz/filedownload?id=791d1153-714b-405b-b4c5-478c30704921

    His blog can be found here:
    http://naturalremediesthatwork.blogspot.com/

  • podblack

    That’s odd, Marcus, considering that the UK hospital under threat of closing down, isn’t it?

    And other news items – January 30, 2008: BBC
    NHS trusts ‘reject homeopathy’
    Cost cutting measures and a campaign against homeopathy lead to cuts in government-funded referrals to homeopathic doctors in the UK.

    BBC News – Health – Homeopathy prescriptions falling . 24 Jul 2008
    GP prescriptions for homeopathy have nearly halved in two years, figures show.. The figures reflect a more critical attitude on homeopathy and a shift towards evidence-based medicine.

    If anything, the challenge of £10,000 (€12,640 put up by Simon Singh, science writer and Prof Edzard Ernst, should be a big incentive? They’re looking for scientific evidence for alternative and complementary therapies – they have in the past found scientific results to back some alternative treatments but not homeopathy.

  • Mutus Bellator

    I believe Prince Henry’s hospital in Melbourne used to be an Homoeopathic hospital and Sydney also had one upto the 1940’s. America had a hundred odd Homoeopathic hospitals and the American institute of Homeopathy was the first medical association in America. Medical politics, money and science got involved somewhere along the way and Homoeopathy became increasingly evanescent. Even though many side effects and deaths are attributed to pharmaceutical drugs, the drug companies are still screaming “Evidence based medicine” from the rooftops. I speculate not as many deaths would have been attributed to Homoeopathic drugs, nor would there have been as many deaths in their hospitals. It would be interesting to see from their old case records their success rate. As Homoeopathy is becoming slowly more popular, young doctors may take an interest in it and undertake courses in Homoeopathy. They did in the past and you never know, in the future they may establish more Homoeopathic hospitals.

  • Hi Mutus,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, homeopathy practitioners do believe there is a force as yet undiscovered by science and it’s that the water has a “memory”.

    You probably know this is the basis of succussion with every dilution. As yet, no-one has been able to demonstrate that water does indeed have a memory. At this point in time it defies all the laws of science we currently know and can measure. Of course, this does not mean it does not exist but in the meantime it has no basis in medicine.

    You are right to say that hospitals have been based around this, I assume you refer the the London Hospital of Homeopathy? I do not have the stats to accurately make judgement about the success rate. I only know from news reports and documentaries that the existence of such a facility is constantly questioned, challenged and remains controversial, because of the reasons I stated earlier about the evidence for homeopathy working. If you have further information I would love to hear it.

    However, as you yourself stated, the placebo effect is a very powerful thing indeed. If the LHH does have success, I suspect this would be a large contributor, since sitting down with a practitioner (of any sorts) for more than the designated 15 min that you are allowed in Australia does a lot for the psyche. For example, 1 hour with a healthcare person, who listens and takes notice makes a big difference to how one feels at the other end.

    You ask whether I am aware of any well educated doctors practicing homeopathy? Yes, of course. I also know of orthodox doctors (and they are all well educated, lets face it, except the ones who purchase their doctorates and they should in no way be practicing medicine), who practice (or prescribe) acupuncture and iriodolgy; equally questionable treatments.

    In my last response to you, I cited in my 30C dilution the book Trick or Treatment [1] co-authoured by Erzard Ernst, the current (and first and only) Professor of Complimentary Medicine in the United Kingdom who “..referred to homoeopathic treatments as a “public health problem” which must be more tightly regulated [2]”. Have a look at the chapter on homeopathy in his recent book if you get a chance, very interesting stuff.

    Once again thanks for your feedback, always welcome

    Cheers,

    Dr Rachie

    [1] Singh S., and Ernst E., Trick or Treatment, Alternative Medicine on Trial. Bantam Press, London, U.K., 2008.
    [2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2141049/%27Homeopathy-putting-lives-at-risk-with-claims%27.html

  • Mutus Bellator

    Dr Rachie, A 3x dilution still has quite a few molecules of original substance left, it’s at 24x or around 12c that no molecules remain. If Homoeopaths are well aware of this and continue to dilute and succuss their remedies then they are aware of some other force at work that science is yet to discover. Hospitals have been built around this system of medicine, some of which are still in operation today. Have all those hospitalised patients that have been successfully treated with Homoeopathy recovered because of the placebo effect? Are you aware that there are very well educated medical doctors practicing Homoeopathy?

  • Hi Mutus,

    You refer to the mother tincture being the original solution, which is then diluted extensively to make the stuff we buy in the chemist. So let’s assume the mother tincture contains 100 molecules of the active ingredient, a 1/10 dilution (known as 1X in homeopathy) will result in 10 molecules remaining. A 1/10 dilution of this solution (to make 2X) results in 1 molecule of the original substance, and by 3X (another 1/10 dilution) there is no active ingredient remaining.

    Of course, 3X (where X indicated 10 times dilution) is quite a low dilution for homeopathy. Many of them use “C” which refers to 1/1000 dilutions, with the number in front of C referring to the number of 1/1000 dilutions which have been conducted.

    So, whilst I agree with you that the mother tincture contains the actual substance, there can be no possible way that a commonly used 30C prep. will. In real terms, this equates to the original ingredient being diluted 30 times by a factor of 100 each time, i.e., 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 [1].
    You can imagine, there is nothing of the original ingredient remaining after this.

    Cheers

    Dr Rachie

    [1] Singh S., and Ernst E., Trick or Treatment, Alternative Medicine on Trial. Bantam Press, London, U.K., 2008.

  • Mutus Bellator

    Dr Rachie, I am very familiar with what a placebo is and yes results may vary. Homoeopathy is not entirely what you think a placebo to be as there are Hoeopathic medicines with rather crude amounts of actual substance ie- Mother tinctures and very low potency medicines.

  • Mutus, the point is placebo is not medicine. In some studies, it is administered as the pill without any active ingredient included. The placebo effect is real of course, but is purely a psychological response, caused by the patient believing that the treatment they are receiving is real.

    Interestingly, it has been demonstrated that expensive placebo tablets work better than cheap ones. The biggest placebo effect is seen with anti-depressant medication, where the illness itself has a basis in psychology. It is not an effective therapy as you say, since the impact of placebo varies dramatically between patients and illnesses, thereby not being reliable or consistent. In the case of drugs, the efficacy can be controlled by dose and frequency. Placebo is not used as you suggest, but rather functions as an artifact when trying to determine the efficacy of drugs. So, if a patient improves after receiving placebo, it is a result of the body healing itself not the placebo, since there is nothing in the placebo that could be attributed to the disappearance of symptoms.

    This is why we can call homeopathy a placebo, since it has a small effect but this effect is not greater than giving the patients sugar pills with no trace of drug (i.e., nothing).

    Cheers, Dr Rachie

  • AndyD, thanks for bringing this to my attention, done.

  • Could you please redirect your “Sylvia Browne” link to stopsylvia.com as the old address is no longer a skeptical site and may in fact end up favouring Browne?

  • Mutus Bellator

    Placebo is not fraudulent medicine, it is very effective therapy in itself. Its range of use is from psychological illness to physical illness. If a patient improves in a clinical trial after given a placebo, how does that prove that placebo doesn’t do anything?

  • Are you even aware of what a placebo is? It is letting the body take care of itself by giving someone something completely useless and telling them it isn’t something completely useless. A placebo is quite literally fraudulent medicine. That in no way adds weight to the argument of it working, but rather it does the opposite and proves that it doesn’t do anything.

    There have been trials that worked in homeopathy’s favour, but they were always small and VERY badly carried out. The larger and more thorough the trial, the worse homeopathy showed.

  • Mutus Bellator

    If placebo is as effective as it is does that not mean that homoepathy works? Have there ever been any clinical effects of Homoeoathy shown to be worse than placebo? If so it must have effects greater than placebo. I’ve heard of people experiencing an homoeopathic aggravation where new symptoms appear corresponding to the symptoms the substance is known to produce.

  • Found the article – it actually states that the clinical effects of homeopathy are no greater than placebo, when compared to the effects of conventional medicine. Cheers, Dr Rachie.

  • Thanks for your comment Mutus. Can you direct me to the article you refer to? Cheers, Dr Rachie.

  • Mutus Bellator

    My understanding is that there have been enough clinical trials done to show that Homoeopathy works, even a 2005 meta-analysis published in the Lancet agreed to it.

  • I hadn’t even heard of ear candling until I started listening to this podcast and I’m flabbergasted that there’s people out there who are actually ignorant enough to give its effectiveness even a moments thought, let alone actually consider it may work. Another day another example of someone who seriously should not have survived beyond the age of 5 due to lack of common sense.

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  • Dear Dr Rachie fan,

    Thank you for your email and the suggestion for a new Dr Rachie Reports. Detox is a great idea and a good follow-on from Quackery in Pharmacies. I will certainly consider it for a future show.

  • Dr Rachie Fan

    Thanks Dr Rachie for your report. Can you talk about Detox and all the Detox quackery out there?