The most recent attack on alternative medicine is strictly standard issue

Getting Bashed

Would you like to make me so angry I could chew barbwire and spit bullets?

Well you’re too late. A few years ago you could have easily riled me up like that, just by writing a wildly biased “evaluation” of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). I don’t mind admitting – I spit some bullets back in the day.

Sure, I still get angry when I think of all the unwary people who are seriously misled by articles like this. But over the past few years I’ve seen so many of these attacks that my anger has turned to amusement because they’re all nearly identical. It’s as if these writers use the same boilerplate, then just drop in a few fresh quotes from “experts.”

I’ll give you a recent example. Associated Press Medical Writer Marilynn Marchione will show you how it’s done in just five simple steps. It’s easy!

Hocus pocus

STEP ONE: Lead off the article with a description of a fringe therapy that’s so ridiculously loopy that even a New Age guru might think it’s quackery.

Here’s how Marilynn does it: “At one of the nation’s top trauma hospitals, a nurse circles a patient’s bed, humming and waving her arms as if shooing evil spirits. Another woman rubs a quartz bowl with a wand, making tunes that mix with the beeping monitors…”

Nice, Marilynn. You’ve immediately established a vivid, frivolous image that the reader can keep in the back of his mind while you cast aspersions on legitimate CAM therapies, like antioxidants and herbs.

STEP TWO: Use the term “snake oil.”

This is a MUST. Marilynn uses it sparingly though. Only two times.

STEP THREE: Whine about the unfairness of DSHEA.

Medical mainstreamers like Marilynn hate DSHEA – the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which regulates supplements.

Here’s Marilynn’s description of DSHEA: “Fifteen years ago, Congress decided to allow dietary and herbal supplements to be sold without federal Food and Drug Administration approval.”

She makes it sound like those lunatics in Congress just got this reckless idea one day to cut supplements loose from any regulation at all. Which is false. Food is also sold without FDA approval, but food is regulated, and dietary supplements are regulated like food. For instance: Every supplement manufacturer is required to meticulously list ingredients contained in their products. If they’re found to be in violation, they face fines, jail time, and their products may be removed from the market.

But if you’re writing one of these articles you have to make it seem like the manufacture of supplements can be done without any constraints, as if unwashed One-a-Day workers were mixing up batches of multivitamins in a dingy basement apartment.

Irony-free zone

STEP FOUR: Feign fairness by admitting that there have been a few bad apples in the pharmaceutical barrel.

Marilynn: “Mainstream medicine and prescription drugs have problems, too. Popular drugs such as the painkillers Vioxx and Bextra have been pulled from the market after serious side effects emerged once they were widely used by consumers. But at least there are regulatory systems, guideline-setting groups and watchdog agencies helping to keep traditional medicine in line.”

That last sentence is either pure naiveté, or pure genius. Either way, it’s purely hilarious. Funny how all those watchdogs and systems and guideline groups allowed Merck to get away with Vioxx for YEARS while serious side effects…emerged? Sure, if by “emerged” you mean heart attack victims died by the score while Merck executives hid memos that revealed the deadly risk. And of course, Vioxx is only the most obvious example of a bad apple. Avandia causes heart failure – this is known, it’s a GIVEN! – but it’s still on the market.

STEP FIVE: Make negative statements about CAM that have been PROVEN to be true about individual drugs and/or the drug industry.

This is the strangest and most perverse step you’ll find in these articles. And you can’t be sure if the author is having a private laugh, or if she’s completely unaware of the irony.

For instance, Marilynn writes: “A few herbal supplements can directly threaten health.” (Again: Vioxx, Bextra, Avandia, Gardasil – show me an herb that’s even 1/10th of the threat of any one of those drugs.)

And: “Even therapies that may help certain conditions, such as acupuncture, are being touted for uses beyond their evidence.” (Drug companies notoriously encourage “off label” use of their drugs.)

And: “They are marketed in ways that manipulate emotions, just like ads for hot cars and cool clothes.” (Please! Just try to watch a half hour of television without three, or four, or five drug pitches that manipulate emotions – primarily fear.)

My thanks to Marilynn Marchione for this master class in how to brazenly bash CAM, promote pharmaceutical use, and do it all with a straight face.

Beware of snake ink salesmen…

“AP IMPACT: Alternative Medicine Goes Mainstream” Marilynn Marchione, Associated Press, 6/7/09,