The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Big AltPharma

Many people think that alternative medicine – what I call “sham medicine”  – is the positive opposite of science-based medicine. Peddlers of sham medicine make all kinds of opposition claims. Claim: Science-based medicine has negative side-effects, whereas sham medicine only cures and never hurts. Claim: Science-based medicine is the domain of “Big Pharma,” a shady cabal of large pharmaceutical companies who withhold cures for cancer to make big money [1] and lobby the Federal government to get their way.

These beliefs have been propagated, in part, by the sham medicine industry. That’s right – pushers of sham medicine are a multi-tens of billions of dollar industry, with everything to  lose if they are forced to demonstrate efficacy of their claims. They have lobbyists to get laws passed that treat them differently; they organize propaganda campaigns;. They do all the stuff that “Big Pharma” is routinely accused of (often by these sham peddlers).

The difference? None of what the sham medicine industry peddles is actually medicine. None of what the sham medicine industry sells is held to the same scientific standards as the science-based medicine industry. There are no serious controls on manufacturing (c.f. homeopathic dilutions), no requirements for rigorous independent reviews or studies of their medicinal claims (e.g. against placebo). They can sell without prescription, direct to consumer – unlike most of science-based medicine. “Doctors” who peddle this dangerous medicine are not required to be actual Medical Doctors (M.D.s).

There is a very good story on all of this in today’s USA Today, and an upcoming book from Paul Offit documenting the abuses of the sham medicine industry. I hope that exposés like this will lead to regulation and oversight of this industry, holding it to the same standards of harm prevention and effectiveness assessment as actual science-based medicine. We need a “The Jungle” moment for the sham medicine industry.

[1] Fun fact: an economic estimate of the value of the cure for cancer suggests that it is worth trillions of dollars, while withholding such a cure and maintaining the status quo is worth orders of magnitude less money than that. c.f.