This week the newly established Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) in the UK announced a code of conduct designed to regulate alternative medicine practitioners.

The Council was established in 2008, using money from the Department of Health (£900 000) and the King’s Fund (£1 million) with the purpose “to enhance public protection by setting standards” in the area of alternative medicine.

Sounds like a good idea to me. Regulation is something that has been sorely missing from the alternative medicine industry since inception. But wait, before we get too excited let’s examine the “legislation” in more detail.

First problem: A conflict of interest? The CNHC was set-up by the Prince’s Foundation for Integrative Health, in other words, woo ruling on woo. For an hilarious take on this aspect of the policy see this article from the daily mash website.

Second and bigger problem: registering with the CNHC is voluntary. (To add to the incentive, it also costs money). To get on to the government-register, therapists will have to show they have the qualifications and experience, abide by a code of conduct and ensure they have insurance in place.

But importantly, the efficacy of the therapies they are offering will not be addressed. Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter’s Medical School said, “There does need to be more rigour in the regulation of complementary medicine as there will be cowboys out there. However, I have concerns that the regulator does not have mandatory powers and is not looking at the efficacy of these therapies.”

Surely this is just arse-about. Whilst I don’t disagree with the idea of alternative therapists adhering to a code of conduct, I do object to them acquiring some official looking stamp just because they can produce a certificate of attendance for turning up to homeopathy school and pouring water into a little jar. A nod from the government with the addition of a regulator logo to promotional material and shopfronts just adds legitimacy to an industry that sells magic water and farcical “cures”.

Homeopathy is water or sugar pills. Therapeutic touch is made up shit debunked by an 11 year old girl as part of her school science project and published in the Journal of America Medical Association. Ear candles do more harm than good, and are based on lies about the creation of a vacuum and the removal of cerumen or ear wax from the ear canals. Detox can kill you, or give you brain damage.

But let’s not worry about that, as long as you have a certificate in “making-shit-up” we are fine with you chanting or holding your hands over someone’s head to channel energy into their aura. Just as long as you don’t do anything weird like have sex with your patient whilst you align their chakras.

The main plank of the council’s work will be to operate a register of practitioners. It will not judge clinics on whether therapies are effective, but rather on whether they operate a professional and safe business.

Maggie Dunn*, co-chair of the CNHC said the regulator would clean up the industry used by one in five people and she estimated thousands of clinics may go out of business in the process. As applying to the register is voluntary, Ms Dunn accepted that some therapists might not put themselves forward. Ms Dunn said: “It won’t take long for customers to start asking whether a practitioner is registered or searching on our website for ones that are. They will then vote with their feet.”

Whilst some people think those stupid enough to use alternative therapies get what they deserve, I believe governments have some responsibility to protect the public from harm. Especially since (in Australia at least) these “medicines” are approved for sale in pharmacies and drug stores, alongside the science-based medicine, thereby lending them legitimacy.

No one expects (and neither they should) Mr Jo Public to take responsibility for establishing whether these things work or not. If the government is going to set up regulatory bodies at least use them for good, not to give the stamp of approval to magic water and other collective bullshit.

*Interestingly, the board of the CNHC is occupied by woo and lay people. Maggie Dunn was lay Chair of the General Council for Massage Therapy until June 2008; the co-chair Maggie Wallace was lay Chair of the Council of Organisations Registering Homeopaths; Jenny Gordon completed her PhD in 2007 which focussed on the use of reflexology as an adjunct to care in the management of childhood idiopathic constipation. The other members appear to be lay people (solicitors), “consumer champions” and a physiotherapist. Medical doctors are conspicuous by their absence.

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