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 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.


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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