Friday, April 29, 2011

I support EU ban on non-evidence-based medicine is an international organization which mounts civil pressure for causes regarded by its leadership as good. Some of them are good indeed, such as the no-fly zone in Libya. However, as often happens with activists, they also advocate things that anyone of the meanest understanding would call foolish at best. See what I found in my Inbox today:

"EU: 3 days to save herbal medicine!
Dear friends,
In 3 days, a new EU directive will ban much of herbal medicine, denying us safe remedies and feeding the profits of big pharma. Let's raise a massive outcry to push the Commission to fix the Directive, and our national governments to refuse to implement it. Let's get to 1 million voices to save herbal medicine:
In 3 days, the EU will ban much of herbal medicine, pressing more of us to take pharmaceutical drugs that drive the profits of big Pharma.
The EU Directive erects high barriers to any herbal remedy that hasn't been on the market for 30 years -- including virtually all Chinese, Ayurvedic, and African traditional medicine. It's a draconian move that helps drug companies and ignores thousands of years of medical knowledge...

It's hard to believe, but if a child is sick, and there is a safe and natural herbal remedy for that illness, it may be impossible to find that remedy.
On May 1st the Directive will create major barriers to manufactured herbal remedies, requiring enormous costs, years of effort, and endless expert processes to get each and every product approved. Pharmaceutical companies have the resources to jump through these hoops but hundreds of small- and medium-sized herbal medicine businesses, across Europe and worldwide, will go bust...

There are arguments for better regulation of natural medicine, but this draconian directive harms the ability of Europeans to make safe and healthy choices. Let's stand up for our health, and our right to choose safe herbal medicine."

I am omitting the lines directing the reader to the online petition. If you want to sign it, you can easily find it by a Web search.
I have bashed the EU bureaucracy on numeral occasions on this blog and elsewhere, but I support it whole-heartedly in this case. It is high time to stand for evidence-based medicine and to ban all snake oils being sold us under the label of "traditional medicine" in pharmacies. There is no such thing as "thousands of years of medical knowledge" - the threshold when medical knowledge advanced enough to bring more good than harm is probably the turn of the 20th century, and it was passed only in the West. If someone thinks that a particular "traditional" remedy works for a certain condition, he has to prove his case to the appropriate drug administration, as with any other proposed remedy. I do not care that the "small and medium-sized herbal medicine businesses" may not have the resources for this, and I do not think their lack of resources is an excuse to let them sell whatever snake oil they wish without proving its efficacy and even safety. If they cannot do their business properly, let them file for bankruptcy, the sooner the better. And please, if you want me to hate Big Pharma which has saved my life more than once, give me at least one rational reason why Big Pharma must be hated, except that it works for profit (as if the snake oil salesmen work pro bono publico).
There is a myth among foolish people that traditional, "natural" and particularly herbal medicine is both effective and safe. To begin with, a remedy that is both effective and safe is a Holy Grail. There are a number of placebos that are safe but not effective, plus a number of effective drugs that are generally not quite safe but, if properly used, have benefits far exceeding the risk. Traditional medicine generally relies on placebos. However, we should not assume that it is always safe. Numerous plants contain potent toxins (take just the fact that Socrates was executed by herbal poison). Some of these toxins have found their application in evidence-based medicine and are being sold by Big Pharma; for the rest, you have only the toxic effect without any proven therapeutic effect. To make things worse, for many traditional Eastern remedies the natural toxicity of plants is not enough and they contain also well-known chemical toxins such as heavy metals (Orac and Skeptico have blogged about this).
Some hardline supporter of individual freedom may argue that consumers should have the right to make choices, even if they are not "safe and healthy". I disagree. A consumer should not be forced to be on a permanent alert in order to avoid buying useless and dangerous things - at least not in civilized Europe. Moreover, while responsible adults could at least in theory make their choices, there is no way to prevent parents from pushing placebos and poisons down the throats of their poor defenceless children. The Avaaz letter particularly stresses the need to keep "safe and natural herbal remedies" available for sick children. I even know parents who treat their own illnesses by effective evidence-based drugs but, when their children are ill, give them traditional medicine because of concern about the side-effects of drugs.
So let's hope that the ban will be enforced and EU pharmacies in the future will sell us only remedies that actually help, according to the best available knowledge.


Murli said...

Fortunately the directive has passed. If herbal medicine was all that reliable, it would simply be called medicine.

I've been a huge supporter of Avaaz for almost a year now, despite people dismissing their petitions as "slacktivism". When it comes to things like supporting the Egyptian uprising, campaigning against corrective rape, stoning, corruption, censorship, etc., I'm all for it. But this particular e-mail caused me to raise an eyebrow. It's quite unnerving that an influential organization like this can be so misguided as to pull together their resources in support of quacks and frauds. This probably explains it:

"They [Avaaz] also monitor constantly online statistics that reveal which campaigns are attracting most interest among members, enabling the membership itself to chose [sic] the network's focus. 'Democratic accountability is hard-wired into the way we work. Each campaign is only as successful as the number of people who choose to join it,' Patel says." Source:

The people have spoken, except when it comes to science, they're usually not the best judges of what's legitimate and what's not. And when it becomes a matter of public policy, the consequences can be pretty ridiculous. This is yet another example of the urgent need of promoting scientific literacy among people.

Murli said...

One more thing. I recently stumbled across the following website: There's no shortage of examples of the harm that alternative medicine can cause. Just some food for thought for the undecided readers.

FreeRad said...

I am recent Avaaz "slacktivist" :-), and I am dismayed by this petition.

I think that for contentious issues like these Avaaz should perhaps consider have a petition both ways (for and against in this case).

I sent them a message via their contact page suggesting this. Perhaps do the same?