Not clairvoyant enough?

Psychic scammer Maria Duval failed to foresee trouble over ‘her’ misleading advertisements. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is funded by the advertising and media industries, and has the stated purpose of ensuring that advertising is socially responsible and truthful. The ASA administers the Advertising Standards Complaints Board, which is the body that hears complaints about ads, and the Advertising Standards Complaints Appeal Board.

Self-styled clairvoyant Maria Duval’s magic seems to have deserted her. Her company has pulled all its New Zealand advertising, following a complaint the Consumers’ Institute of New Zealand made to the Advertising Standards Complaints Board (ASCB).

Who or what is Maria Duval?

Maria Duval is the frontname for a scam operating all over Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. It is listed as a scam on the Ministry of Consumer Affairs Scamwatch website and the Consumers’ Institute A-Z directory of scams.

We also published a news item on Maria Duval in February 2005, questioning why banks and credit card companies continue to profit from this scam.

The Ontario police, US Postal service, agencies in five Australian states, the New York Better Business Bureau and consumer agencies in Europe have all investigated or warned against the Maria Duval scam. We complained to the ASCB after Sunday News and the Timaru Herald published large advertisements promoting Maria Duval.

The ads promised to fulfil seven wishes for no charge – “Nothing to pay, everything is FREE!” it claimed. Among other things, you could expect to “win the lottery jackpot within a fortnight”, successfully bet on the horses, and “solve [your] financial problems once and for all”.

The underlying reason behind the ads was to build a list of potential victims, who would then be hounded to pay for dubious psychic services.

We have heard from several New Zealanders who have paid large sums to the Maria Duval scam, including some who have gone into debt.

The ASCB’s decision

The ASCB upheld our complaint. It stated that the “Complaints Board was unanimously of the view that the advertisement would create unrealistic expectations of life-changing benefits”, and therefore “there was no doubt it would be likely to mislead and abuse the trust of the consumer.”

Following our complaint, Swiss ad agency Infogest suspended all Maria Duval print ads in New Zealand.

Martin Craig is an investigative writer at the Consumers’ Institute of New Zealand.

How to complain to the ASA

  • Don’t complain very often. Every TV ad for alcohol generates a complaint from Kate Sheppard types who are opposed to the product rather than the ad. To the ASA’s credit, every one of these complaints is considered before rejection.
  • Be specific. The ASA has set criteria for complaints. Some of the complaints it gets are very vague – eg, two males kissing (in a safe sex ad) is disgusting and shouldn’t be allowed. Read the criteria, say which criteria you think the ad breaches, and say why it breaches them.
  • Be realistic. The ASA has no legal powers. It is a self-regulation tool used by the advertising industry. In fact, to have your complaint accepted you must waive your right to use legal channels. The ASA can have a specific ad pulled but it cannot order fines or damages. It can’t order retractions or apologies either.
  • The advertiser gets a right to respond. One of the reasons we made this complaint was to discover who the Maria Duval advertiser is. Even if the complaint had been rejected, this information would have been useful.

The ASCB Maria Duval decision

On 14 June 2005 the Advertising Standards Complaints Board met to consider Complaint 05/116, filed by Martin Craig for the Consumers’ Institute, concerning the Maria Duval psychic services advertisements. This is an abridged version of their deliberations.

Complaint: The newspaper advertisements carried the following headline and offers:

“Maria Duval, the very celebrated clairvoyant, Makes you this strange offer:

See the 33 Wishes below, and choose those you’d Most like to see coming true in your life NOW!

“I’ll try to realize them FOR YOU FREE!”

Maria Duval.

Choose your 7 wishes NOW!

… 1. Win the lottery jackpot within a fortnight.

… 3. Win on the horses.

… 12. Do a round-the-world tour.

… 32. Solve my financial problems once and for all.

… 33. Be able to stop working with a substantial monthly income.

Nothing to pay, everything is FREE!

Receive also a free prediction

… offering you free a special personal prediction….”

It also contained the wording: “FREE FOR YOU” and “FREE OF CHARGE”

The Complainant, Consumer’s Institute, said:

“I am writing to complain about print advertising for Maria Duval, a known scam which is listed on the government’s Scamwatch website.

“While the ads in question did not require consumers to send money, Consumers’ Institute members report that requests for money quickly follow any response to this ad.

“The ads breach the Advertising Code of Ethics Rule 2 – Truthful presentation because they are likely to deceive or mislead the consumer, make false and misleading representation, abuse the trust of the consumer and exploit his/her experience and lack of knowledge.

“The ads breach the Advertising Code of Ethics Rule 6 – Fear, because they exploit the superstitious.

“The ads breach Rule 2 by stating ‘Nothing to pay, everything is free’; ‘I fully understand that I’ll never be asked for any money in return for your help with fulfilling my 7 secret wishes, either now or later’; and ‘Maria Duval…is going to undertake for you a ritual known by her alone, which will allow your secret wishes to come true in your life’.

“The ads breach Rule 6 by offering ‘more luck’; offering to perform ‘this very special ritual’ for the consumer; referring to ‘the astonishing powers of Maria Duval’; referring to ‘Miracles’; and offering to ‘allow your Secret Wishes to come true’.

“The Maria Duval scam is well-known and international. The purpose of the ads is to gather names and contact details from potential victims. Consumers will be contacted repeatedly and asked to pay money.

“We have heard from several New Zealanders who have paid large sums to the Maria Duval scam, including some who have gone into debt to do so. I also believe that publications act unethically by accepting advertisements for any product or service listed by Scamwatch. Publishers have no excuse for failing to monitor the site. Any publisher who accepts ad revenue from a scammer is profiting from the scam and is failing in their ethical responsibility to their readers.”

The chairman ruled that the following provisions were relevant:

Basic Principle 1: All advertisements must comply with the laws of New Zealand.

2. Truthful Presentation – Advertisements should not contain any statement or visual presentation or create an overall impression which directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity or exaggerated claim is misleading or deceptive, is likely to deceive or mislead the consumer, makes false and misleading representation, abuses the trust of the consumer or exploits his/her lack of experience or knowledge.

6. Fear – Advertisements should not exploit the superstitious, nor without justifiable reason, play on fear.


Counsel on behalf of the Advertiser said:

“Our clients instruct that, as far as they are aware, the advertisements in question are not in contravention of any laws of New Zealand. Our clients instruct that the advertisements are not misleading or deceptive, or are likely to mislead or deceive the public.

“Our clients note that Ms Duval’s services have been listed on the New Zealand Ministry of Consumer Affairs’ Scamwatch website as an astrology/psychic scam. Scamwatch defines astrology scams as promotions that ‘advise that you could come into a fortune if only you send funds to mail boxes for talismans, golden eggs or fortune telling guides to personal wealth’.

“Our clients instruct that Ms Duval’s services do not fall under this category. Ms Duval’s life mission is to help others, either in predicting the future or to fulfil their wishes in life. She is a real-life person who has a history of 25 years of accurate and verifiable predictions behind her. She regularly works with doctors and the police, and has been consulted by prominent people. She has made about 2400 television appearances, and has been a guest on radio programmes on more than 8400 occasions. She has also appeared in more than 700 press articles, and we enclose a montage of press clippings for your information and reference. As such, our clients are aggrieved that Ms Duval has been listed on Scam-watch, as Ms Duval does not deceive, exploit or mislead the public.

“With respect to the article that was published in the March 2005 edition of Consumer, our clients instruct that as far as they are aware, Ms Duval has never been investigated by the Ontario police, US Postal Service, the New York Better Business Bureau, or in Europe.

“Our clients deny that the advertisements in question are likely to deceive or mislead the consumer, make false and misleading representations, abuse the trust of the consumer and exploit his/her experience and lack of knowledge.

“Our clients also deny that the purpose of the advertisements is to gather names and contact details or to repeatedly request for money following the response to the advertisements. Our clients instruct that Ms Duval provides a bona fide service and does not exploit the consumer. If any payment is asked for in respect of readings or predictions by Ms Duval, our clients instruct that full refunds are given to customers who are not completely satisfied with her services. As such, our clients instruct that customers would not be prejudiced financially if they are not satisfied with Ms Duval’s services.

“Our clients deny that the advertisements in question are in breach of Rule 6. Even if the advertisements are targeted at those who believe in astrology, psychic or clairvoyant powers, our clients instruct that Ms Duval does not exploit these customers who hold such beliefs, and does not play on their fears. She offers a service to help people realise their dreams and to give them hope.

“Whilst our clients deny the allegations raised in your letter, they have decided to suspend all Maria Duval print advertisements in New Zealand until all issues relating to this complaint have been resolved. Our clients intend to seek assistance from legal counsel in New Zealand to assist them in developing print advertisements that will comply with the Advertising Codes of Practice in New Zealand.”

The Timaru Herald, Fairfax Sunday Newspapers and ACP Media Ltd made statements on behalf of the media in which they agreed to abide by the board’s decision, and/or not to run Maria Duval advertisements in the future.

Deliberation

The Complaints Board noted the Complainant, Consumers’ Institute was of the view that the advertisements abused the trust of the consumer by offering services they could not reasonably deliver, and as such it was misleading.

As a preliminary matter, the chairman clarified for the Complaints Board that it would not deliberate on Basic Principle 1 (All advertisements must comply with the laws of New Zealand), as the complaint did not refer to any specific law which the advertisement may or may not have breached.

Accordingly, the task before the Complaints Board was to determine whether the Maria Duval advertisement would be “likely to deceive or mislead the consumer” as stated in Rule 2 and/or whether it exploited the superstitious, thereby breaching Rule 6.

The Complaints Board advised that it was obliged to confine its consideration to the content of the actual advertisement rather than considering the subsequent interaction between the advertiser and the consumer as alleged by the Complainant. However, it did note that the advertiser had been listed on the Ministry of Consumer Affairs Scamwatch website, and this in its view indicated that the advertisement had been found to be misleading by that organisation. The Complaints Board was unanimously of the view that the advertisement would create unrealistic expectations of life changing benefits, and thereby it effected a serious breach of Rule 2 of the Code, as there was no doubt that it would be likely to mislead and abuse the trust of the consumer.

The Complaints Board was not required to make a ruling under Rule 6 of the Code, as the issues contained therein had been subsumed by Rule 2.

It noted that all Maria Duval advertisements had been suspended from publication in New Zealand by the advertiser and that legal counsel would be sought in the preparation of new advertisements to ensure they complied with the Advertising Codes of Practice. It also noted the responsible attitude taken by the media concerned with regard to future advertisements for Maria Duval, and that the Scam-watch website, having been brought to their attention, would be checked before publication of such advertisements in the future.

The Complaints Board ruled to uphold the complaint.

Credence is Beyond Belief

The Break Free tour will be coming soon to a city near you. The week-long tour of lectures and book selling will start in Christchurch at the end of November and proceed to Wellington, Taupo, Hamilton and Auckland. The person who will head the tour is Phillip Day, who supposedly is “an award-winning author, health researcher and world-class speaker.”

Day may be a good speaker. He certainly has had enough practice, since his tours regularly take him from his base in Britain to several countries. He has been in New Zealand before. Day also runs websites that sell books by himself and a few associates. But what awards he has won or research he has conducted is unclear. What he says is not worth hearing and often is dangerous.

Phillip Day says and writes a lot about many things. He leads Credence, which claims to be “an independent research organisation dedicated to reporting contentious issues that may harm the public. [Their] goal is to report properly annotated and verified information of tremendous benefit to humanity.”

Day also runs the Campaign for Truth in Medicine (CTM) and the Campaign for Truth in Europe (CTE). He manages a website called Eclub to publicize these efforts.

Day’s CTE hates the European Union and denounces Britain’s “own conniving politicians” for permitting “the destruction of Britain by giving their consent to be ruled by an unelected, unaccountable European autocracy dominated by Germany and France.” The EU wants to hijack the success of British athletes, Day complains, by making them compete under the European flag at future Olympics. While such political views may be merely quirky, they offer a glimpse of a mindset gripped by conspiracies.

Day accuses the British government of conducting “a programme of coercion and terrorism against the British farming industry” because it slaughtered animals during the recent foot-and-mouth crisis. According to Day, the disease is no worse than a bad cold for an animal, is not caused by a virus, and can be cured by good housing, bedding and food. The reality of the so-called outbreak, he says, is the British government’s criminal and treasonous decision to rid an independent Britain of its livestock industry in order to promote a European federalist agenda.

Doctors top Phillip Day’s list of people who harm the public. He sees a “slaughter of the citizenry.” He quotes approvingly an alternative therapist who charges, “The most dangerous place on planet Earth is the hospital – next is the doctor’s office – followed closely by the dentist’s office.” Although he lacks a suitable qualification, Day knows better than doctors. His tour promises to show audiences how to “BREAK FREE from cancer, addiction, and depression.” Sadly, Day also quotes Dr Bill Reeder, an alternative therapist who offers questionable chelation therapy near Hamilton, who says he will be “directing all my cancer patients to your site.”

Perhaps the most dangerous misinformation Phillip Day spreads concerns cancer. He condemns prescription drugs, radiation and chemotherapy. He says mammographies do not detect cancer – they cause it. Police officers supposedly get testicular cancer by sitting in their squad cars with a speed gun in their lap. Day insists cancer is a deficiency disease. He recommends apricot seeds/laetrile/Amygdalin/vitamin B-17 as a cure for cancer, praising the work of Ernst Krebs. In fact, Krebs and laetrile long have been discredited. Ernst T Krebs, Jr never earned a graduate degree. Starting in the 1950s, he and his father sold quack “cures” for major diseases, especially cancer. Krebs spent time in jail. Laetrile, sometimes called amygdalin or vitamin B-17 (it is not a vitamin), has been rigorously tested in the US by the National Cancer Institute and the Food and Drug Administration. The tests showed it to be medically useless. It even contains cyanide and has killed people. It is now illegal to sell laetrile in the US. In the mind of Phillip Day, laetrile is outlawed only to protect “the multi-billion dollar, world-wide cancer industry.”

Day says there is no HIV virus – the “highly poisonous Aids medications” are part of a “calculated and inhumane population control agenda which has been sanctioned at the highest political levels.” He praises South African President Thabo Mbeki’s bizarre views on Aids, which have led the South African government to refuse medication to people with HIV. Tragically, the World Health Organisation says Aids is the biggest cause of death in South Africa.

Also dangerous is Phillip Day’s insistence that children do not need any vaccinations. Good food, water and love supposedly are sufficient.

Yes, the Break Free tour is coming to New Zealand. People who value evidence, critical thinking and reason may want to attend – to witness a bad example.
Dr Raymond Richards is a Senior Lecturer in History and American Studies at Waikato University . He can be reached at [email protected]

I Feel Sorry For Him

A French test of a therapeutic touch practitioner generates sympathy, but no positive results

We have recently received a message from OZ. Not transtasman Big Brother, but the cousins in France. OZ stands for Observatoire Zététique, a group of skeptical investigators (Zetetic is much the same as skeptic, as every Victorian schoolboy knew. The Greeks had not just one word for it, but two).

The message is an English translation of their report on a test of a Therapeutic Touch (TT) practitioner. This person, referred to as “Mr Z” had approached OZ with some keenness to be tested, and many discussions took place, not only on a detailed protocol for the tests, but about Mr Z’s philosophy and approach to his vocation.

OZ summarise Mr Z’s practice thus:

“[It] depends largely on subjective validation parameters: the [energy] is sensed either around the area affected by a given pathology or in the vicinity of the source of the problem. For example, ankle pathology can be the cause of muscular tension in the neck; thus the signal might be perceived either in the ankle or the neck area. This complicates any attempt to identify the signal by comparison to objective means of observation (eg scanners, x-rays, MRI and so forth). The same is true of treatments carried out by means of ‘magnetic passes’; the area to be treated cannot be determined by reference either to the affected area or to the area deemed to be the cause of the pathology. Moreover, a validation based on the sensations of patients would be lengthy and difficult to implement, and would not furnish a satisfactory solution to the problem of observation according to objective parameters.”

After long consultation two tests were set up. In the first, preliminary test, Mr Z determined for each investigator from which part of the body he detected the strongest signal. He was then blindfolded, and he examined each in random order. Result, two successes out of nine attempts: failure.

For the second and definitive test, Mr Z chose the skeptic whose “body energy” he found to be the strongest. This was a female member of the investigating group. The two members with the weakest “energies” assisted Mr Z. A screen was set up across a doorway between two rooms, with Mr Z and his assistants on one side, and the other investigators and the subject on the other. In several dummy runs Mr Z claimed to feel the “energy” through the screen when the subject was present, so a series of 100 tests, with 50 “positives” (subject behind screen), and 50 “negatives” (subject not behind screen). Mr Z expressed himself satisfied with the test, and was keen to have the results published. Of 100 tries, two were discarded because, by reason of misunderstanding of signals, the subject’s position did not match that indicated by the previously randomly selected positives and negatives. For statistical significance, 98 tries require 64 correct answers. Unfortunately for Mr Z, he achieved only 55. These unsurprising results confirm previous findings and our expectations from our present knowledge of the physical world. What did surprise me was the great empathy between the skeptics and Mr Z. Their report shows almost great disappointment that he failed. Is this the stuff skeptics are supposed to be made of?

The title of this article is quoted by the investigators as the comment by the president of OZ when the news was reported to him.

Medical Principles

It may be time to expand the principles of the Hippocratic Oath

First do no harm. That’s the major principle of the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath. For the most part, the public are well-served by that principle and by our medical community. It’s a principle which any health professional should follow as a matter of course. But I think they could do with an addition to “First do no harm” — how about “Second, do some good&quot.

I’m not convinced, though, that that would have been enough to help the unfortunate patients of Dr Richard Gorringe, the Hamilton GP recently struck off the register after being found guilty of disgraceful conduct. His combination of unorthodox practices appeared to pass neither principle for a number of his patients, and he was found to have caused them “unnecessary suffering”.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this case was the comment from the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal that:

“Dr Gorringe’s belief in the accuracy of his diagnoses and in the efficacy of his unusual treatments is such that the tribunal can have no confidence that, were he to continue in practice, his patients would be properly advised of their nature and limitations so as to permit informed choice.”

Patient advocates have fought long and hard to get informed choice enshrined as an important principle in medical practice, so it’s worrying to hear that Mr Gorringe intends to continue to offer medical advice and treatment, albeit as a naturopath.

Given the tribunal’s caveat, one wonders how informed his next patients will be as to the principles guiding his treatments. And what protection or redress, if any, there will be for future patients who find themselves undergoing “unnecessary suffering”.

These are not questions solely for the Gorringe case, however, but ones we all need to consider. After all, we have a Ministerial Advisory Committee for Complementary and Alternative Health currently examining what modalities are to be integrated into the New Zealand health system, and what regulations, if any, this new and lucrative health market is to operate under. The committee has defined complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to include “all such practices and ideas self-defined by their users as preventing or treating illness or promoting health and wellbeing.”

I guess this extremely loose definition is understandable, given that five of the eight committee members are self-identified CAM practitioners, with business interests in iridology, naturopathy, natural medicines, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, aromatherapy, massage therapy, counselling, sclerology, osteopathy, homeopathy, anthroposophy and culturally defined health sectors.

However, such an all-encompassing, self-serving definition doesn’t help the patient trying to decide if a recommended practice is safe and effective, and it’s a bad look for the CAM industry as a whole. Two CAM practitioners who were members of the White House Commission on CAM Policy, were honest enough to warn that:

“Generic recommendations neither serve the public interest nor protect the public health because they fail to distinguish between approaches, practices and products for which there is some scientific evidence and those that either stretch the realm of logic or are demonstrably unsafe.”

And while it’s said more Kiwis are turning to alternatives, they also want reassurance that not only are such practices safe, but that they will really work. According to the New Zealand Family Physician journal, 71 per cent of New Zealand patients surveyed wanted regulation of complementary medicine to be on a par with orthodox medicine.

The distinction, of course, is an artificial one. As Marcia Angell, editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, says, there is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work.

Once a treatment has been tested rigorously, it no longer matters whether it was considered alternative at the outset. Everyone would welcome cures for cancer, eczema, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, whatever their origin, so long as they do no harm and, as an equally important requirement, actually do some good.

But if the modality involved has no basic grounding in reality, then it doesn’t matter how many doctors take it up, how many products are sold, how well integrated it is in our hospitals, it won’t do any good and, as demonstrated, can do a great deal of harm — physical, emotional and economic.

Any health practitioner, whether registered doctor or naturopath, who refuses to acknowledge this, is guilty of disgraceful conduct. You don’t need a professional board to tell you that, just simple ethical principles.

Newsfront

Dying is Bad for Business

An Auckland law firm was going to court late last year (Dominion Post, November 1) to block the opening of a funeral parlour opposite it. Death (or dealing with it) offends against the ancient Chinese art of feng shui. Contact with death can lead to bad luck and negative energy could flow from the funeral parlour into the law firm. The firm was concerned it would lose its Asian clients if the parlour opened. The parlour, meantime, said it had been granted resource consent. Haven’t heard the outcome yet…

Ringing in new changes

And while on the subject of feng shui, here’s a tip for Telecom. Feng shui specialist Honey Lim says the company should relaunch its new logo in February to capture the powerful energy of a new age in the feng shui calendar. In the Dominion Post (November 26) Ms Lim says she approves of Telecom’s new logo, which is in harmony with feng shui. Telecom spent $140,000 on the logo, and will be happy to learn its green and blue squares underpinning the yellow rectangle have good karma. Ms Lim says the old one featuring three coloured spears stabbing the company name, which told her that, “despite the company’s own colourful and innovative efforts, their initiatives were hurting themselves more than spurring them forward.” She reckons they really should relaunch themselves in the New Year — an act which would generate “awesome feng shui”… . February 4 marks the beginning of ‘period 8’ in the feng shui calendar, a period of new energy. And in order to benefit from it, people or organisations need to undertake renewal or change after that date. Now there’s an idea…

ET – Wait a Tick

The mayor of a Brazilian town says he had cancelled a planned landing by aliens during an important soccer match last year (The Press, November 24). Elcio Berti said he cancelled the landing of the alien spaceship because he was worried they may abduct one of the Brazillian footballers. Berti, the mayor of Bocaiuva do Sul, claims to be in regular touch with aliens and is preparing a UFO landing pad for them in town.

“Con” Man Speaks Out

It was good to see Australian skeptic Richard Lead in the Dominion Post (September 22) following our conference last year. In a small article the “professional cynic” explained how he has tackled cons, from the Nigerian scam to property investment.

“I was living in Samoa in 1994 when I first saw the Nigerian scams. I used to attend a businessmen’s lunch and would pass the letters around and we would have a good laugh. I later found one of the guys had got taken for $90,000.”

This and similar scams, he said, work by the “Concorde fallacy” — the only chance you have of getting back the money you’ve already invested is to put in more. “They just keep sucking you in and the losses keep getting bigger and bigger. I used to say ‘how could people be so stupid?’. I don’t say that any more. I’ve seen it happen so often.”

He told the paper the hardest part of the job was dealing with people who had lost life savings, something he was not equipped to deal with. “Nothing in my accountant’s training prepared me for people with tears in their eyes because they’ve lost everything.”

The best way to avoid being taken in was to exercise common sense and carefully evaluate everything. “…if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

Not a Prayer of a Chance

The biggest scientific experiment on prayer has failed to find any evidence that it helps to heal the sick.

Doctors in the US said that heart patients who were prayed for by groups of stranger recovered from surgery at the same rate as those who were not (Dominion Post, October 17).

The three-year study led by cardiologists from Duke University Medical Centre in North Carolina, involved 750 patients in nine hospitals and 12 prayer groups around the world.

The prayer groups included American Christian mothers, nuns, Sufi Muslims, Buddhist monks in Nepal and English doctors and students in Manchester. Prayers were emailed to Jerusalem and placed in the Wailing Wall.

Earlier, less extensive, research had suggested prayer could have a beneficial effect.

The news brought swift reactions. The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, said “Prayer is not a penny-in-the-slot machine. You can’t just put in a coin and get out a chocolate. This is like setting an exam for God to see if God will pass it or not.”

Red Tape for Health Pills

The Herald reports (December 8) that the $200 million-a-year health supplements business is up in arms over a Government plan to join with Australia to regulate the industry.

Under this plan, all dietary supplements and alternative remedies would be classified as pharmaceuticals and regulated through a new transtasman agency.

New Zealand has about 10,000 complementary and alternative health practitioners. Health Minister Annette King said the move was about quality, public safety and standards. “We require standards about the food we sell… we require standards for pharmaceuticals and medical devices. And one of the hard lessons I learned last year was that the public demanded standards and regulations for complementary healthcare.”

Opponents say New Zealand will lose control of decision-making to Australia, Kiwi dietary supplements firms will be hurt, and customers will have less choice.

Green MP Sue Kedgley and NZ First MP Pita Paraone are upset the Government is including alternative medicines and supplements before the health select committee report is out.

“Slimming Water” the Latest Fad

Forget about cutting out carbs on Atkins or replacing meals with a milkshake — the latest dieting phenomenon to hit the shelves is bottled water which claims to help people lose weight (Rotorua Daily Post, January 13).

Contrex is being marketed as Britain’s first “cosmetic water”, on the basis that it works as a slimming aid. Nestle, its maker, claims that the mineral water contains natural sources of calcium and magnesium which can eliminate toxins, fight fatigue and help people stay in shape. The calcium can also increase the body’s metabolism and improve weight loss, according to Nestle.

Health experts dismissed the idea of a “diet water” as ridiculous. Amanda Wynne of the British Dietetic Association said: “Drinking water will not make you slim, even if it is fortified with calcium and magnesium. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Despite this criticism, industry insiders are predicting that so-called “aquaceuticals” will be the boom dieting products of 2004. The fad started in Japan and hit America last year, with several brands planned for launch in Britain this year.

A spokeswoman for Nestle said, “It is selling like hot cakes. Contrex has been sold in France for years and women there call it the slimming water. You get the minerals you need without putting on weight.”

Other aquaceuticals to go on sale recently include Blue Water, which costs an incredible £11 a litre and claims to improve skin conditions and general wellbeing. It has been developed by an Austrian naturalist, Johann Grander, who says he “removed the negative memories from water and transferred beneficial energy patterns to it”.

Some fans say they feel better simply by sleeping next to a glass of Blue Water at night. Other products have celebrity endorsements, such as the Kabbalah Mountain Spring Water favoured by Madonna. It claims to have been transformed into a “living” water through modern technology and the wisdom of ancient texts used by the Cabbala, a Jewish mysticism.

Lakeland Willow has also been launched as an aquaceutical in the UK. According to its marketing blurb, it contains salicin, a natural painkilling substance found in willow bark.

Newsfront

Your Future is not in the Stars

Level-headed Virgos everywhere will not be surprised, but a 40-year study of astrology has found it doesn’t work (Dominion Post, August 19).

More than 2000 people, mostly born within minutes of each other, were tracked through the period of the study. According to astrology, the subjects should have had very similar traits. The researchers looked at more than 100 characteristics, including occupation, aggressiveness, sociability, IQ levels and ability in art, sport, maths and reading, but found the subjects no more similar than a randomly selected sample of the general population.

The babies were originally recruited as part of a medical study begun in London into how the circumstances of birth can affect future health. Former astrologer Dr Geoffrey Dean, who analysed the results, also found astrologers could do no better than chance in matching birth charts to the personality profile of a person among a random selection. Their success rate did not improve even when they were given all the information they sought. He said the consistency of the findings weighed heavily against astrology.

“It has no acceptable mechanism, its principles are invalid and it has failed hundreds of tests. But no hint of these problems will be found in astrology books which, in effect, are exercises in deception.”

Roy Gillett, president of the Astrological Association of Great Britain, said the study’s findings should be treated “with extreme caution” and accused Dr Dean of seeking to “discredit astrology”. Frank McGillion, a consultant to the Research Group for the Critical Study of Astrology, said: “It is simplistic and highly selective and does not cover all of the research.” He said he would lodge a complaint with the journal’s editors.

Ashburton Panther a Big Moggy?

A truck driver’s report of a panther not far from Ashburton came as no surprise to many people in the back blocks of the South Island (Rural News, October 20). Richard McNamara, of the Department of Conservation (DoC), says two English tourists reported a “mountain lion” about the size of a labrador at the top of the Lindis Pass, and this was not the first such sighting from the area. Christchurch teacher Marianne Daines also reported a labrador-sized cat, black like the Ashburton beast, from near Twizel.

According to Bendigo Station gamekeeper Steve Brown some of the feral cats in his area are huge — he has one weighing 6kg in his freezer, and says bigger ones are out there. DoC and Otago Regional Council confirm the existence of these big cats, many of which will completely fill a possum trap.

For that matter, this writer and Skeptic editor Annette Taylor saw a cat at Lewis Pass about 20 years ago which, if not as big as a labrador, would have been almost the size of our border collie (who is admittedly not the largest specimen of her breed).

Inaudible “Spooks”

Mysteriously snuffed out candles, weird sensations and shivers down the spine may not be due to ghosts but to low frequency sound inaudible to humans. Dr Richard Lord and his colleagues at the National Physical Laboratory in England have shown that extreme bass sound, known as infrasound, produces a range of bizarre effects in people, including anxiety, extreme sorrow and chills.

The team, who produced infrasound with a sevenmetre pipe and tested its impact on 750 people at a concert, said infrasound was also generated by natural phenomena.

Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, whose name often crops up in stories like this, says his findings support the idea that this level of sound may be present at some allegedly haunted sites and so cause people to have odd sensations that they attribute to a ghost.

Sex Abuse Counsellor Faces Tribunal

A tribunal in England has heard that John Eastgate, a consultant working mainly with adolescents, used counselling sessions to “lead” a “vulnerable and angry” 13-year-old girl into believing she had been indecently assaulted by a fellow doctor (Daily Telegraph, September 2).

Joanna Glynn, QC, representing the GMC, said it was “dangerous”, when dealing with a girl suffering from “adolescent difficulties”, to start from the premise that abuse did occur.

She said: “In this case the child was bright, angry and resentful, and it has to be said, a difficult adolescent, and the imposition of such preconceived ideas by the psychiatrist is likely to justify her anger in her own eyes and to colour most of the things she would say afterwards.”

The hearing in London was told that Mr Eastgate began treating the girl, known only as Miss A, at the Marlborough House adolescent unit in Swindon, in April 1996 after she was referred by teachers at her boarding school. He dismissed their fears that she was suffering from anorexia and claimed her lack of appetite was due to profound depression. He prescribed her antidepressants.

During a number of counselling sessions in June and July, he allegedly prompted the girl into believing she had been sexually abused by a doctor who had treated her when she was 9.

Professor X, an endocrinologist, had treated her in London for a growth disorder between January 1993 and August 1995 when she was growing unusually tall. He prescribed oestrogen to induce puberty early and limit her growth and, as part of his treatment, had to monitor her breast and pubic hair growth to assess her development. It was during these sessions that Miss A claimed that Professor X “fondled” her.

Three days later, without informing her parents, he contacted the local child protection team and the police. Miss A, who a month earlier had taken an overdose of antidepressants, was taken into care. The case against Professor X was dropped almost immediately after it emerged that her mother or grandmother attended all her visits to him. They did not see anything untoward. Giving evidence, Miss A’s mother described her reaction.

“I was completely in shock,” she said. “I thought, ‘How could anything have happened while I was there?”

But Miss A was not released from care for three years because during her stay she made further allegations of abuse against three other men, including her father, a businessman. Those charges were later dropped by Miss A, who is now reconciled with her family.

Mr Eastgate, who is in his 50s, denies four charges of misconduct, including failure to keep adequate notes, which if proved amount to serious professional misconduct.

Cell Phones Again

In last issue’s Newsfront, a Wellington School of Medicine study showed no link between tumours and cellphones. Now a doctor in Sweden has come up with a new way to scare cellphone users (Dominion Post, September 15).

Professor Leif Salford of Lund University has spent 15 years investigating whether microwaves could open the blood-brain barrier allowing a protein to pass into the brain and cause damage. The voluntary exposure of the brain to microwaves is, he says, “the largest human biological experiment ever.” No results from these studies were reported, however.

Doctor Found Guilty

A Hamilton doctor who prayed to cure illnesses diagnosed using wands and vials of chemicals has been found guilty of misconduct and disgraceful conduct (Dominion Post, August 13.

Richard Gorringe was found guilty by the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal in relation to patients Yvonne Short and Ravaani Ghemmagamy whom he treated in 1998. The tribunal found he exploited Mrs Short for money, and knew, or should have known, that the diagnosis and treatments he gave her were wrong. It also found he did not give either woman enough information about their treatments for them to be able to give their informed consent.

The tribunal was told that Mrs Short’s eczema worsened under Gorringe’s care. Using the peak muscle resistance test, Gorringe asked Mrs Short to touch a metal wand to various vials of chemicals to see how her body “resonated” with them. He then diagnosed her with paraquat poisoning and prescribed homoeopathic injections and other remedies which he sold her.

Dr Gorringe diagnosed Ravaani Ghemmagamy with brucellosis, a rare and notifiable disease most commonly contracted from handling raw meat. After asking if she was open to “spiritual healing”, he raised his hands and prayed: “Lord God Almighty, strike the bacteria from this woman’s body.”

In the weeks since, there have been numerous letters to the Waikato Times from satisfied patients protesting Gorringe’s crucifixion by the medical establishment.

Newsfront

Biokinetic Horror Show

A Hamilton doctor is facing two charges of professional misconduct and one of disgraceful conduct after one of his patients was left looking “like something out of a horror movie”. The Marlborough Express (August 21) reports Yvonne Short had gone to Dr Richard Gorringe in 1998 looking for a cure for her skin problems.

She told a disciplinary tribunal in Hamilton Dr Gorringe promised to cure her within 12 weeks, but she ended up worse off.
“My hands were also swollen and painful… I would wake up in the morning and there would be skin on the bed and on the floor,” she said.
In her opening address, director of proceedings Morag McDowell told the tribunal Dr Gorringe’s alternative practice was not an issue. Instead, the prosecution was concerned with his diagnostic technique.

The next day (NZ Herald, September 22) Dr Gorringe demontrated this technique, known as Peak Muscle Resistance Testing. Using a fake patient, he showed how the patient placed his or her hand or arm on a square aluminium plate, which was part of a wired circuit.

In the other hand, the patient holds an aluminium rod, and touches dozens of small vials filled with various body tissues, chemicals, toxins and pathogens. If the patient’s arm flexes when they touch a certain toxin or body tissue vial, that shows what is wrong and where the problem lies.

Using this technique, Dr Gorringe diagnosed Yvonne Short as suffering from paraquat poisoning.

Expert witness Dr Richard Doehring told the tribunal the technique was not reliable, adding that muscle testing was without objective validation and confirms what the practitioner expects it to confirm.

He criticised as unethical Dr Gorringe’s practice of selling remedies from his own clinic and described his alternative practice as “cruelly exploitative, if not outright fraudulent.”

Hotline to Heaven

Bolivian visionary, evangelist and stigmatist Katya Rivas flew into Wellington briefly, and relayed a message from Jesus especially for the people of New Zealand. Since being visited by the Blessed Mother in 1993, Katya has reported numerous miracles. She has even converted sceptics to Catholicism – Aussie investigative journalist Mike Willessee interviewed her in 1999 for a Fox TV documentary and the former sceptic converted. It was he who invited her to Sydney, to help launch a new video he made on the miracle of the Eucharist. Contact magazine (September 5) had this as its lead article, spurring an unprecedented five copies submitted to Newsfront from members. Christ’s message, by the way: “We are already in a new country, a country which is ready to receive my mercy through love. Trust, it is important that you speak to the people and save souls that are precious to me. Happy are those who are docile to my voice and invitations.”

Letters to the editor resulted, essentially saying “Stigmata, potata!” – one pointed out that CSICOP’S Joe Nickell looked into the alleged stigmatisation and found they could not be authenticated. The show was so bad it even won Farce of the Week (see http://www.randi.org/jr/7-30-199.htm). Another said “A lot of Mike Willessee’s very sane friends and colleagues are deeply concerned about his health…”

Something to cry over

While on such things, the NZ Herald (September 23) reports the weeping virgin of Rockingham appears to have joined the long list of fakes that have plagued Christendom since splinters of the “true cross” carved out a market in the Middle Ages. (I wish I’d written that introduction -ed.) After examination, a secret cavity was found in the fibreglass statue which has enthralled thousands of the faithful at the industrial suburb south of Perth since rose-scented “tears” appeared in March. Following a pattern on the internet describing how to “amaze your friends and bring peasants to your door” the unknown creator reportedly put an oil-filled cavity in its head. It was then sold as a souvenir in Thailand eight years ago. Such are miracles.

Bad Vibes, Man

A Whakatane woman fears plans to build a periodic detention centre next to her shop will wreak havoc on her business, the Dominion Post (26 July) reports. “I sell crystals, can you imagine the negative energy that will come from over there,” said Gerry Tobin, who plies her trade next to the proposed Commerce St site. On the other hand, we wonder whether the positive vibrations from her wares will have a beneficial effect on the prisoners?

It’s your hair they’re after

Consumer Affairs Ministry senior adviser Pamela Rogers is one person keeping tabs on scams (Dominion Post, September 11 – yes, there were other news items that day). She says the “ickiest” one she’s seen was from clairvoyant Liv Hansen who would map out your financial future in return for $30 and a clipping of your hair.

Similar scams included Master Charli Chan’s amazing golden dragon egg and Maria Duval’s cardboard talisman, priced between $50 and $80.

Variations on the Nigerian scam include pleas from Zimbabwean “Edward Mulete” to help disperse his murdered farmer father’s $46 million estate, and a man claiming to be the late King of Nepal’s lawyer looking to offload $67 million squirreled away by the king’s son and killer, Prince Dipendra.

The ministry has also seen a recent upsurge in “El Gordo” lottery scams, in which people are sent a letter or e-mail saying they had won money in a lottery, but needed to send a cheque or provide credit card details to pay $50 to claim their prize. Ms Rogers said people still sent money despite knowing they had not entered such lotteries.

Sceptic sees stars

Independent film-maker Bart Sibril surprised Buzz Aldrin, one of the first astronauts to walk on the moon – and saw stars for his efforts. The man-described as a “sceptic”-maintains the moon landings were faked in the Nevada desert. He was with a Japanese film team and ambushed the astronaut outside a Beverly Hills hotel, reports The Press (September 21). “I walked up to him on the sidewalk and put a Bible up to him and asked him to swear on the Bible that he actually walked on the moon,” said Sibril, who has confronted Aldrin twice before. “He refused to do it, so I told him he was a thief to take money for giving an interview on something he didn’t do. That’s when he hit me …”

Looking For Love

Keiko, the whale from Free Willy, has told an “animal interpreter” that he is lonely and looking for love. He also has an itchy back. Astrid Moe, who claims to have had a “lengthy telepathic dialogue” with Keiko, says the whale is looking for his other half and that he feels stuck between two worlds, reports the Star-Times (September 15). “He told me that his back was very itchy and that was when I saw an emitting device near his dorsal fin. That’s probably what he was talking about.” Rocket science.

Newsfront

Justice at Last

Two recent items in the overseas press show that NZ is lagging behind in recognising that the child sex abuse panic has been greatly overblown. In a case which closely paralleled the Christchurch Creche, Dawn Read and Christopher Lillie, Newcastle, were cleared in court of molesting children in a nursery eight years ago, says the Guardian (July 31). Despite this they were fired from their jobs and hounded into hiding by the media and the community. They have just won a libel case against the review team who assessed evidence from the children, the Newcastle City Council and the local Evening Chronicle.

In a very similar situation in Saskatchewan, the Globe and Mail reports (August 1) Police officer John Popeoppich has finally won an apology from the government and a $1.3 million settlement after 10 years of panics centred on a babysitting service. Although he had never met any of the children, he was suspended from his job without pay when one of the children picked his photo out of a book of city police officers after an investigator suspected police involvement in the alleged satanic cult. Meantime in NZ ACC’s decision to reinstate lump sum payments has had the expected result of an increase in abuse claims. At least Lynley Hood won the Montana book awards for A City Possessed.

Highland Fun and Games

And on a completely different subject, it’s all on in Scotland at the moment. The country has the highest concentration of UFO sightings on the planet, says The Evening Post ( June 24). Around 300 UFOs are spotted in Scotland each year, the most per square kilometre and per head of population of anywhere in the world, figures compiled from Scotland’s offical tourist body revealed.

VisitScotland said 0.004 UFOs were spotted for every square kilometre of Scotland. The 2000 UFOs spotted every year in the US represented 0.0002 sightings per square kilometre. The paper asks – Is Scotland beset by UFOs? Or by a combination of whisky and RAF bases?

Still in the land of the bagpipes, organisers of the Queen’s jubilee said they had seen something “pretty weird” when a baton on the way to the Commonwealth Games was lowered into Loch Ness recently (Dominion, June 6). The baton contained a device that could detect a pulse rate and had been lowered 220 metres to the lake’s bottom. On its return, near the surface, there was a “strange interruption”. Investigators said there was a thing in front of the camera. It was brown, almost looked organic and slipped by and then the pictures cut out, said event director Di Henry. She concluded it could have been wood or seaweed or it could have been Nessie. It was all done to stimulate interest in the Commonwealth Games…what are they anyway?

Back to the Future

Speaking about bottoms (we were you know), the future is all in your behind, according to a blind German psychic whose exploits were reported in the Dominion Post (July 17).

Ulf Buck tells fortunes by feeling people’s bare buttocks. Sounds scary, but the 39 year old swears by it. He’s even been on national TV over there, doing hands-on “readings”. The paper says Herr Buck has been practising his unique form of posterior palmistry for years. And that he’s happily married. What can one say.

Fishy Remedies

Trials of the supposed “miracle cure” for cancer found in NZ’s green-lipped mussels have stopped.

The mussels caused near-hysteria when Adelaide’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital said that Lyprinol killed cancer cells in lab tests, back in 1999. Queensland-based company Pharmalink stopped funding the research after deciding the extract didn’t work. Lyprinol is now on sale as HPME, Highly Purified Marine Lipid Extract, without any claims of cancer-fighting properties.

And still on the marine organism front, the Dominion (June 10) reports about half a million asthma patients have descended on an Indian city. They hope for a miracle cure offered to anyone who swallows a live fish stuffed with medicines. In Hyderabad a family has been offering the treatment for many years and say the cure must be taken at least three years in a row, along with a special diet, for 45 days. Apparently the fish’s movement clear the patient’s windpipe and the medicine then goes to work. They guarantee a 100 per cent cure, no matter how bad the asthma. Hard to swallow.

Fish but no Chips

John Riddell learns to his cost that fishermen can be as easy to catch as the creatures they pursue

I have a confession to make. I’ve been taken in by a scam. Normally this shouldn’t be cause for embarrassment, but I like to think of myself as a skeptic. I mean if anyone should be able to see these things coming it should be a skeptic. It’s only gullible people get taken in by scams right? It all comes from liking fishing too much. Salt water fishing in my case.

In our corner of the globe the target species is a fish commonly called a snapper. Fantastic eating and fun to catch. The world record is a bit over 30 pounds but a 2 or 3 pound fish is a good fish and much better eating. At least according to those of us who never catch the big ones. On a good day we catch the legal limit of nine per person (minimum size 27cm). But to have a good day you have to get everything right. Bait, berley, location, tide, tackle and weather all have to be right. Get one wrong and you catch fewer fish. Get two wrong and you catch none.

So like all fishaholics, between those rare occasions when I actually make it out on to the water, I spend a good deal of time thinking about fishing, reading the fishing magazines, listening to the weather reports, and thinking of ways of catching more fish, bigger fish, or let’s face it, some fish.

One day, while I was chatting to my cousin Don about fish, he mentioned that a friend of his swore by an electronic fish attractor. It is called “FishMAXTM“, and it’s a little box about the size of a pack of cigarettes. A sealed unit. Two wires come out of it. These wires are put in the water as far apart as possible. Once the electrodes are in the water, a little red light (LED) starts flashing on the box. That means it is working. It supposedly puts out a signal that attracts fish from up to three miles away.

Now I should have known better than to accept anecdotal evidence but we are talking about fishing. Rational thought gave way to greed. My ears perked up. “An electronic fish attractor? What a brilliant idea,” I thought. That was the first mistake. Allowing my enthusiasm to override logic. Here comes the next mistake. “Heck. If it really works, think of the money I could save on berley.” (Berley is what we call groundbait/chum, ie chemical fish attractor).

The phrase “If it really works” goes through the mind of everyone ever taken in by a scam.

I found an ad in the fishing magazine. Only $149.00 On the internet, $65.00

My next mistake. A little bit of knowledge. As opposed to enough. Fish have a thing called a lateral line. It is a line of receptors along the side of a fish that picks up small electrical signals in the water. Since fish can detect electric signals, it’s possible that an electronic fish attractor could work.

Next mistake. Do a little bit of research. As opposed to enough. I checked out the net. That’s inter, not fishing. There are lots of sites on the net about electric fishing. The thing is, it does actually work. There is a phenomenon called electrotaxis. If you get a fish in a certain type of electric field the fish will swim towards one of the electrodes. Once the fish gets really close it conveniently falls asleep (electronarcosis) and floats to the surface. Now this sounds too good to be true, but it is true. Fishologists and conservation types use these electric fishing things to study endangered species and also to catch pest species such as carp. When the electric field is switched off, the fish wakes up and swims away unharmed.

So I rang the toll free number in the fishing mag and told the “FishMAXTM” guy at the other end that they were only $65.00 on the net. “No problem.” he said and matched the price. Now I normally spend $8.00 on berley every time I go fishing so I was thinking “if it really works, think of the money I would save.”

I gave him my credit card details and he couriered it to me the next day.

So did it work? As soon as I got it I put the electrodes at opposite ends of my 3 foot tropical fish tank. The little red light began to flash. This means it is working. The fish in the tank carried on, blissfully unaware that they were being attracted to anything.

A guppy did swim up to examine one of the electrodes but then he swam away. The rest of the fish continued to distribute themselves randomly through-out the tank.

I confess to being disappointed. But not surprised. By now I had done a little more research. It turns out real electric fish attractors use high voltages (600V) and also a fair amount of power. They are also only effective in fresh water, and over very short ranges, a few metres at most. My fish attractor was supposed to work for thousands of hours without a battery replacement. Something began to smell fishy.

Since then I have been fishing four times. I used the FishMAXTM electronic fish attractor on two of those occasions. I caught fish. I usually do. But I caught more fish when I didn’t use it. On one of the occasions I used the FishMAXTM the berley I had been using fell off without my noticing. Even though the FishMAXTM was still flashing the fish stopped biting. When I realized the berley had fallen off, I put more berley out and we began to catch fish again.

By now I had decided that if it wasn’t a scam, it should be.

The thing is, fisherpersons are very superstitious. I try not to be. I usually catch a limit on days the Maori fishing calendar says are bad for fishing. And I always take bananas even though they are supposed to be bad luck.

The problem with fishing is the outcome can be so variable. This variability is the stuff that superstitions are made of. Most of the time you can’t see what is happening under the water. Sometimes the reasons people use to explain why they do or do not catch fish don’t have much to do with the real reasons. From the point of view of a scam artist, fishermen have got to be an ideal target species.

Ok, so lets think of a way of getting fishermen to give us money for a worthless and therefore cheap to make, product. What we need is a small sealed box that has a flashing light (LED) to show that something is happening. It needs to be sealed so you can’t look inside and see there isn’t much there. Inside the box we need batteries to power the light. We also need to have some wires that come out of the box. These wires can be put into the water. Once the wires are in the water the circuit is complete and the light begins to flash. We tell the fishermen that when the wires are in the water and the light is flashing that fish will be attracted.

One of the boys at the pub happens to have a PhD in physics and conveniently runs an electronics research lab. He very kindly connected my FishMAXTM up to one of his squiggleoscopes. There were a couple of volts DC but not much else. Next came the hacksaw and the Stanley knife. The unit was filled with a resin. It took quite a bit to get into it. Inside were two 1.5V AA batteries and the wire that connected them to the flashing LED. If there were any silicon chips or even resistors and capacitors or electrical components of any kind, the boys in the lab would have recognised them. But they just weren’t there. I admit that even I was surprised. I had assumed there would be some sort of circuit, even if it were just to make the light flash. It turns out the LED does that automatically.

So now I get to play games with the Commerce Commission and the Fair Trading Act.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

When Children are the Victims of Quackery

This Bravo Award-winning item originally appeared as the editorial in the March 23 issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal

Is it time for the government to investigate a glaring anomaly in our legislative approaches to the rights of children? In some areas, the child’s right to safety, autonomy and privacy, is clearly paramount, in others, it seems, it is not.

After the death of Liam Williams-Holloway, in October last year, paediatric oncologists Mike Sullivan and Robin Corbett made a complaint to the Health and Disability Services Commissioner, Ron Patterson, about the role of “alternative practitioners” in the “treatment” of Liam’s neuroblastoma, and the standard of care he received.

Early this month, the Commissioner declined to investigate their complaint, saying that Liam’s parents did not want an investigation into these practitioners and their care. He was reported as saying that, if “the person alleged to be aggrieved does not desire that action to be taken”, he has discretion to take no action.

But surely, in such a case, it is the child, and not the parents, who is the person most “aggrieved”? It is Liam who died. The Code the Commissioner upholds is the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights and surely Liam, and not his parents, was the “consumer” of health services in this instance.

Complications

There are further complications. Liam was a ward of the state at the time he received treatment at the Rainbow Clinic in Rotorua, and Child, Youth and Family Services – and not his parents – were his legal guardians.

In the eyes of the law, Liam’s parents deliberately flouted a court order which would have compelled them to allow his chemotherapy at Otago Healthcare to continue.

Otago healthcare specialists knew and stated (to Liam’s parents and to the court) that 50% of children with Liam’s condition responded favourably to chemotherapy. Despite this, Liam’s parents wished to avoid chemotherapy for their son and sought alternative, unproven treatment.

The vulnerability of parents whose children have been diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness is extreme and I do not wish to add to their grief at the death of their young son. But it is scarcely surprising that they do not want to have an investigation into the therapist and therapy they sought in defiance of the oncologists’ advice and the court order, and it seems nonsensical that Liam’s rights should depend on their decision.

It seems that the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights (HDC Code) does not provide for a child to have independent rights. Other legislation, including the Privacy Code, does. Yet which is more important, privacy or safety?

Practicality

The second issue is the practicality of investigating alternative practitioners, and the Commissioner accepts that the current situation is messy and difficult. In Liam’s case, Ron Paterson could have, if he had wished, investigated the alternative practitioner involved, Gerard Uys, who claimed in a May 1999 Listener interview that his quantum booster machine could cure cancer in a couple of weeks. Quote: “Yeah, leukaemia really is not too difficult. It’s just a mineral deficiency.”

But claiming to cure cancer is an offence under the Medicines Act, isn’t it? No. To advertise that one can prevent, alleviate or cure cancer for reward is an offence. And, according to the Ministry of Health, it is not “advertising” to make such a claim in an interview with a newspaper, because there is no payment involved.

So Gerard Uys, in telling the Listener that “one in four people on average have cancer and we can see it on this machine, but we never ever tell them. We just fix them up” is not “advertising” a cure for cancer, and is not legally liable.

And even if the HDC code were applied to him, it would hold few terrors. The code does not say anything about treatment being effective.

Rights in the Code

Right 4 of the code refers to the “Right to services of an appropriate standard.” The first two clauses say

  1. Every consumer has the right to have services provided with reasonable care and skill.
  2. Every consumer has the right to have services provided that comply with legal, professional, ethical and other relevant standards.

What are the “legal, professional and other relevant standards” that apply to “health services” provided by those who wave quantum boosters at their patients?

Are they simply to be measured against the standards of care provided by other quantum-booster-wavers?

One can understand the basic intent of the legislation – to measure like against like. It would not make sense, in a case of cardiac emergency, to measure the standard of care given by a GP in a small surgery against that given by a specialist cardiologist in a hospital. But if such an interpretation means that the code fails to protect the public from quacks and quackery, it is toothless and useless.

Right to Information

Right 8 of the code is the “Right to be fully informed” and includes such rights as an explanation of the consumer’s condition and an explanation of the treatment options available, including an assessment of the expected risks, side-effects, benefits and costs. How much protection does this offer?

What information about quantum boosters or any other “way-out” treatment will be given? What scientific validity will be claimed for it? And what “explanation” of conventional options, risks, benefits, side-effects, etc. can the quack provide? It seems the code only requires “conventional” medicine to provide information, evidence, and rigorous scientific investigation to substantiate its claims. Practitioners of alternative therapies may claim what they like.

The previous Health and Disability Commissioner, who produced the HDC code, was vocal in her support of Liam’s parents’ right to choose alternative treatment for him. She said that under the code, “parents and guardians must look at all the options available and make an informed choice.” Who could argue with that?

But how does any parent make an informed choice about an unproven device such as a quantum booster which has never been scientifically evaluated?

The reality is that the more highly qualified you are, the more the current HDC code requires from you, while leaving the public unprotected from unscrupulous quacks and their claims.

Commissioner Ron Paterson is on record as disagreeing with his predecessor’s views on this “let the buyer beware” philosophy, but he is still administering the same code.

So what can be done about the safety of our children, given an environment in which their parents exhibit a growing enthusiasm for alternative medicine?

Evident Concerns

The commissioner has evident concerns in this area. When announcing that he would not be investigating the complaint made by Drs Sullivan and Corbett, he advised them to take the issue to the committee advising the Minister of Health on complementary and alternative health therapies.

In the press release accompanying the terms of reference for the committee, Sue Kedgley, Green Party Health spokesperson, expressed her delight that the health minister had agreed to take this first step towards recognising properly registered complementary therapists and ensuring that consumers using complementary therapies are properly protected.

It will be wonderful if this is in fact an outcome of the deliberations of the committee. With exceptions, such as chiropractors, alternative practitioners in New Zealand currently are largely unregulated.

The International Scene

How does this compare with the international scene? In Britain, where the situation is similar to ours, a House of Lords select committee on science and technology released a report last year on complementary and alternative medicine with recommendations for improving the situation. The report recommends clearer regulation, with individual disciplines setting uptheir own regulatory bodies with codes of ethics and practice, and greater levels of education and training. It also calls for both conventional and alternative practitioners to engage in constructive debate about their roles, encouraging greater communication between practitioners and their patients.

In Europe and the USA there are few healthcare activities allowed without state authorisation. Even “mainstream” alternative practitioners such as acupuncturists, herbalists and naturopaths, have been prosecuted for practising without medical qualifications. As Simon Mills says in his paper “Regulation in complementary and alternative medicine” (BMJ vol. 322, 20 Jan 2001), “The increasing demand for alternative care across the developed world has sometimes been met by practitioners outside the law and without recognisable training, qualifications, professional standards or insurance.”

Accountability

We are seeing growing evidence of this in New Zealand and the accountability of these practitioners seems negligible. At the same time as the public and the media clamour for doctors to be more accountable, there seems to be widespread (and legislative) acceptance of people who practise alternative healthcare with inadequate education and training, and no legal or ethical responsibility for outcomes.

Doctors accept accountability. They also accept change, and many who were trained in conventional medicine now include some elements of alternative and complementary medicine in their practice. While it is important that they are trained, supported, ultimately accredited and regulated in these areas, their patients are protected because they are accountable to the standards expected of any medical practitioner. What protection is there for the patients – and especially the child patients – of the quack?

The government’s proposed committee has a huge task ahead of it. Research into, and clinical trials of, alternative treatments are difficult because of a variety of factors, such as lack of standardisation of treatments, difficulty in “randomising” patients and comparing treatments with placebo effects.

Will the committee share the commitment that doctors have to scientific study of any therapy, conventional or alternative?

Can any committee protect the public from unscrupulous quacks peddling “magic cures”?

We doubt it, but we welcome the remote possibility of improving the current situation.

Mike Sullivan and Robin Corbett have said they will put in a second complaint about alternative practitioners to the Health and Disability Commissioner. When they do, I hope he sees it as his responsibility to investigate any “health practitioner” who claims to cure cancer, or is irresponsible enough to advise diabetics to stop their insulin treatment.

I hope, too, that he will take a wider view and use his influence to ensure that our legislation is consistent in its emphasis on the rights of our children to life and health, regardless of their parents’ decisions about their treatment.

Health, Wealth and Wellbeing through Critical Thinking and Bluebottle Farming

Bernard Howard reports from the Skeptics’ World Convention, Sydney, 10-12 November 2000

John Clarke’s gaze had been mercifully averted, so we were spared a TV series “The Congress”, showing all that could go wrong in planning an international conference. Heart-thumping, hair-tearing and nail-biting there may have been among members of the organising committee, but to the visitor the Third International Skeptics Congress proceeded very smoothly. There was a report that James Randi had found himself at the point of leaving Beijing without an Australian entry visa, but the revered face and voice arrived as planned. A catastrophe averted; an international skeptics meeting without our GOM is unthinkable.

The three days of the meeting were devoted to, respectively, “Wealth”, “Wellbeing”, and “Health”, broadly interpreted. A brief report cannot mention each of the many speakers, so I apologise in advance to those omitted. On day one, after initial formalities, and an address by Paul Kurtz, Founder and current Chairman of CSICOP, we heard of the many ways the unwary can be separated from their money. Apart from names familiar to skeptics, we heard from two Australians eminent in public affairs. First, Nicholas Cowdery QC is Director of Public Prosecutions for New South Wales, and shared some of his experiences of scams. Apart from some amusing episodes, he told of his astonishment when visiting South Africa to encounter a health campaign entitled “Raping a virgin does not cure AIDS”. The local witch doctors have been advising the ignorant otherwise, to the distress and shame of hundreds of ten year old females. Second, you would not think that anyone would send their life savings to a PO Box in hope of making a fortune investing in a bluebottle farm. And you would expect there could not be a more humourless, dead boring bureaucracy than the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. Both of these assumptions are wrong; the hundreds of Australians tempted by bluebottle farms and similar bizarre schemes were lucky that the PO Box they mailed their cheques to actually belonged to the Commission. Alan Cameron AM, the Chairman of the Commission, explained this imaginative method of assessing people’s gullibility. Sadly, it is regularly found to be high. This was my “top spot” of Day One. Randi was in top form in his evening presentation; in addition to showing us the video clips of his “Psychic Surgery” and the exposure of the fraudulent Peter Popoff, which he had shown during his tour of New Zealnd, he recounted a very disturbing episode at a meeting of evangelist Benny Hinn.

“Wellbeing” on day two covered many aspects of irrationality and critical thinking; from creationism to nuclear power; the “ten per cent of our brain myth”, psychic sleuths, and belief in magic. I liked Roland Seidel’s maxim; “Science tells us about the natural world, everything else tells us what it is like to be human”. My highlight of the day was Richard Wiseman’s two presentations. As well as having devised many ingenious tests of psychic claims, he is a deft conjuror and showman, and a frequent performer on UK television. He showed several film clips of fake seances, Rupert Sheldrake’s “psychic dog” (just a restless dog), and Sai Baba. We know the latter Indian “godman” is merely a conjuror; what was clear from the film is what a bad one he is, a real fumbler. A great contrast to the dazzling displays at the Congress from Bob Steiner, Steve Walker, Peter Rodgers, and Richard Wiseman. Skepticism and magicianship are natural partners.

Saturday evening’s Dinner afloat gave further opportunity for socialising and enjoying Sydney’s wonderful harbour. I found Darling Harbour by night a beautiful sight. Later, on a daytime bus tour, I thought it hideous.

And so to day three, “Health”. Dietary supplements, herbalism, immunisation, therapeutic touch, veterinary quackery, and, of course, cancer. “Raising a Skeptical Family” by our own Chair-Entity, was received very warmly. We often get the impression that Australians are very ignorant of events in New Zealand, and I was surprised to find that the Liam Williams-Holloway case had been followed closely over there. Once more, the Australian Skeptics demonstrated the respect in which they are held; in addition to the distinguished visitors we heard on day two, today we heard from Rosemary Stanton, the country’s leading nutritionist, Dr Gillian Shenfield, Professor John Dwyer and other prominent medical people. Prof Dwyer’s view that “Doctors must take a leadership role in protecting the public from quackery” sat uneasily in my mind with Dr Joe Proietto’s survey of a group of medical students, who, having read a hopelessly flawed journal article, were nevertheless prepared to recommend the therapy described.

My interest in the Health sessions meant I had to miss the concurrent session on “Cults & Crypto-religion”. This included speakers from China on Qigong and the Falun Gong. These, presented through an interpreter, were criticised afterwards as being nothing more than Chinese Government propaganda. Spouting “the Party line” has not died with the decline of Communism in the West.

The Australian Skeptics’ wealthy patron Dick Smith has long been a source of envy. I was surprised to find, advertised in the refreshment area of the Congress, “Dick Smith’s Australian Foods”. In selling his electronic business and moving into foods, he has jumped a level in the Periodic Table, from a silicon-based product to a carbon-based one. If the biscuits and cakes at morning and afternoon tea were his, I hope we may enjoy them here soon.

This was in every way a most successful event, of which our trans-Tasman friends should be proud. Paul Kurtz commented that, in all the skeptics conventions he had attended, he had never heard so much laughter from the audience. The Australian Skeptics have the same attitude as that which has inspired us from our foundation, “Take the work seriously, but not ourselves”. I am unlikely to be able to travel far to another international gathering, and I am grateful to our Australian friends for bringing this one within reach.