Fat Chance

I START with another example of chemists’ lack of ethics and the gullibility of the public. In November 28 issue of the Listener, the ever suspicious Pamela Stirling did a good expose on Cellasine, the new herbal cellulite “remedy”, which sold out in a few days when it came here.

The Australasian distributor, Bionax, admitted that Cellasine had been a “godsend”, rescuing the company from financial strife. Ms Stirling then systematically exposed the stuff for what it is: phoney. There is absolutely no evidence that it has the slightest effect on those growing wads of fat that appear on our thighs and bums as we get older.

It’s the usual story of the masses being desperate for a substitute for exercising and eating less. I don’t blame the public; they’ve always been a pushover for unproven remedies.

However, Dr David Russell, chief executive of the Consumers Institute, who has evaluated a lot of preparations sold for cellulite (“they’ve all proved hopeless”), believes that, in the absence of rigorous clinical trials, New Zealand chemists should not be using their reputations to promote such products. It is “singularly unethical of chemists to be promoting this sort of stuff, given their claim to be health professionals that people can trust”. I can’t improve on those comments.

Wonder DOC

This edition’s Skepsis award for going beyond the call of nature goes to Dr Mark Austin, a Nelson GP who has “taken a sideways step and declared myself to be practising essential functional medicine” (New Zealand GP, 2 December 1998).

In the half page article on “dietary supplements”, he makes himself out to have discovered a better way than the orthodox “Western male biochemical way”. In fact, he typifies many of the quirks of the quack, which include:

  • it’s “natural”, no need for therapeutic trials, it’s got to be good for you.
  • orthodox practising doctors do not treat the “whole person”.
  • orthodox practising doctors are in the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies.
  • orthodox doctors conspire against the alternativists.
  • alternative doctors are “environmentalists, holistic, whole person specialists, nutritionalists, functional therapists” etc.
  • they’re not interested in money.

Welcome to the Magic Circle, Dr Austin.

I’ve Been Framed

In the same issue of New Zealand GP, another stalwart anti-medical establishmentarian, Dr Tessa Jones, who featured in an earlier Skepsis article, bleated on about her unfair exposure by Consumer magazine. She also received harsh criticism from the New Zealand Ethics Committee because of her selling unproven products to terminal cancer victims. She is now saying that it’s “ethical as long as your patients know you stand to gain from them taking what you are recommending”.

I can’t say I’m surprised that she is now being assessed by the Medical Council Disciplinary Tribunal.

Healthy Scepticism

This is the name of a magazine being sent to New Zealand doctors, and could be a great ally to our society. It is written by the MaLAM (Medical Lobby for Appropriate Marketing Inc) secretariat and funded by PHARMAC.

In Volume 2, No. 1, January 1999, there is an item “Be Aware of Experts and Conflicts of Interest”. This warns of the very real danger of specialists endorsing drugs because of incentives such as drug company funded research.

However, MaLAM should itself be careful not to be hung by its own noose. PHARMAC also has an interest in promoting drugs that cost the New Zealand taxpayer less. This is already causing doctors and their patients great problems. For example, PHARMAC has prevented heart disease sufferers from receiving vital blood pressure and cholesterol-reducing drugs.

So until MaLAM rids itself of PHARMAC, I will urge my colleagues to regard anything they have to say with “healthy scepticism”.

The Sceptic Arm of the Law

There was a delightful story in the International Express, 26 January 1999, entitled “The Ghostbuster Judge”. It concerned a couple trying to get out of their house loan because they claimed they had not been informed that their cottage was haunted. They had the support of their local vicar.

The judge gave them short shrift, dismissing the wife as hysterical and the husband as devious. The evidence of the vicar he described as “deeply flawed and unacceptable”, and found against the couple, dismissing their stories of ghostly happenings as a figment of their imagination. Amazingly, they had legal aid. Pity this judge wasn’t on the Peter Ellis case here.

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