Claytons Vaccines, Claytons Protection

This article was originally presented on National Radio’s Sunday Supplement

Be wary of “the health professional you see most often”. In some cases be afraid, be very afraid.

Why? Well in some cases, the advice you get from your friendly pharmacist could be deadly.

I try to ignore the herbs of dubious quality, the effusive claims for magnetic bracelets, the offers to feel my feet to see what ails me – all those things which seem a core part of pharmacy stock and trade. I do wonder about the business and medical ethics. After all, what’s worse – a pharmacist who apparently can’t distinguish between tested, regulated medicines and the hope and hokum variety; or the pharmacist who does know and doesn’t care because such stuff sells?

But the whole sorry state of that industry took a chilling turn recently with the report of an Auckland pharmacy selling a homeopathic meningococcal vaccine.

Many homeopaths would argue that the 300-year-old practice of diluting substances into infinitesimal amounts is akin to taking a vaccine. “Like cures like” as they say. What they don’t say is that the massive dilutions they use would require you to drink almost 8,000 gallons of homeopathic solution to get just one molecule of any medicinal substance involved.

You can pay a hefty price for this diluted water, but you can pay a much bigger price if you use it in place of stuff that actually works.

The Council of the Faculty of Homeopathy, the registered organisation for UK doctors qualified in homeopathy, recommends immunisation with conventional vaccines. As GPs, they know you ignore real vaccination at your peril. It’s a pertinent warning here when we’re considering a large-scale vaccination programme against meningitis.

Small wonder that the head of our Health Ministry’s meningococcal vaccine strategy was concerned about the sale of homeopathic vaccines, warning in a Herald article that it could give people a false sense of security.

However, I think the real false sense of security comes from the hopeful notion that we have some legislative protection from purveyors of such patently misleading products. There’s no protection under the Medicines Act it seems, for the Health Ministry’s compliance team leader Peter Pratt noted in the same Herald item that such preparations are permissible so long as they were “sufficiently diluted”.

Yet it’s the dilution that make this approach to vaccination so dubious in the first place, and not just to the skeptical. Alternative practitioner and homeopath Dr Dominik Marsiello states unequivocally that “there is no such thing as a homeopathic vaccine”. He goes on to acknowledge that “homeopathic remedies are too dilute to stimulate an immune response and confer immunity. There is no basis, historically or scientifically, for such a practice.”

Yet we have bottles of water labelled “meningococcal vaccine” and “hepatitis B vaccine” in our pharmacies, sold by health professionals, as a protection against these terrible diseases. Some apologists have said that “vaccine” in this case actually means “immune booster”. But “vaccine” has a specific meaning – it’s something which confers immunity through the production of antibodies. This is an easily testable claim, but apparently not one our Ministry of Health considers worth bothering about.

I shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, last time concerns were raised about a comparable product, our Commerce Commission – the organisation charged with protecting us from fraudulent claims – passed the buck to the Ministry of Health, saying it was a health issue. The health ministry, in turn, washed its hands of the business saying that “water is not a medicine”, thus it had nothing to do with them.

Contrast this with the activities of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, their state Health Care Complaints Commissions, their Fair Trading Ministers, and the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration. They are taking an increasing interest in those areas where bogus medicines, fraudulent claims and consumer rights intersect. The TGA took a very dim view of having a fake vaccine on the Australian market, banning it and warning consumers. And the New South Wales Fair Trading Minister referred to the earlier incident where people were paying a 400,000 percent mark-up on a small bottle of water as “a New Age spin on an old-fashioned rip-off”.

Strong words, but ones which need to be said, and said loudly. I know of one New Zealand baby dead of meningitis because homeopathic treatment was chosen over real medicine. I don’t want to see any more. I just wish our Health Ministry felt the same.

Eternal Life – Courtesy Time/Life

When I received through the mail a coloured brochure from Time/Life advertising a series of videos and cassettes titled “Growing Younger”, I was surprised to see that I could learn from Time/Life via their series how to develop an “ageless body”. In addition I could learn to “help reverse ageing” and that the series could “open the door to a life free from the effects of aging” (sic).

When I read Time/Life’s promises I was reminded once again of the shysters’ creed that “no-one ever got rich overestimating the intelligence of the general public”.

I was similarly reminded of a newspaper advertisement advising readers of the presence of the Advertising Standards Authority.

The Authority is a body that is set up to maintain ethical advertising standards. In their words the Authority “…is dedicated to ensure that not only does advertising comply with the law but is also truthful and not misleading or deceptive, and that it is socially responsible.”

Surely, I thought, Time/Life must be in breach of the Authority’s regulations. I therefore requested and received the Advertising Codes of Practice. In it I found the Code of Ethics containing the following:

Rule 2 Truthful Presentation

Advertisements must not contain any statement or visual presentation which directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity or exaggerated claim is misleading or deceptive, is likely to mislead or deceive the consumer…

I therefore laid a formal complaint to the Complaints Board, mentioning Rule 2 of the Advertising Code of Ethics, and Time/Life’s promises of “an ageless body”, “a life free from the effects of aging” (sic), and the claim to “help reverse ageing”.

To my astonishment, after deliberating the Board ruled not to uphold the complaint.

The Board were apparently entirely in agreement with Time/Life who said in defence of the brochure, that the guru concerned with the series, Dr Deepak Chopra, was not speaking in “chronological” terms with regard to ageing, but rather in “biological” and “psychological” terms. In addition, said Time/Life, Dr Chopra had a “worldwide reputation in both traditional and alternative medicine” … “with great demand for his products.” Furthermore, said Time/Life “…I am satisfied with the integrity with which we have represented “Growing Younger” to our New Zealand customers.”

Yes, but what about claims of an “ageless body”, “a life free from the effects of aging” (sic)?

Mere “puffery” said the Board, “as opposed to claims that were capable of substantiation”. In addition they were of the opinion “…that the advertisement would not mislead consumers…rather the statements were the advertisers’ hyperbole about the perceived benefit of the product.”

Time/Life and Dr Deepak Chopra are presumably wealthy and influential. It would be interesting to read how many millions of dollars are spent advertising their publications. It is, to my mind anyway, quite impossible to publish such outlandish claims without being in breach of the Advertising Code of Ethics. Surely this is a classic “exaggerated claim” likely to “deceive or mislead the consumer”.

I have written to the Board formally objecting to the decision and requesting a review. To my mind the decision raises a precedent that invites advertisers to treat the consumer (and the Board) with disdain. The decision similarly downgrades the Board as a consumer watch-dog.

The time is well past that claims made by health care providers of all shapes and hues must be examined. Any cursory glance in a “health store” or new age crystal merchant’s premises will reveal a mass of laughable gibberish masquerading as “health advice”. Most of it is aberrant nonsense, not likely to be taken seriously. Some of it though defrauds the gullible, and endangers health.

Why on earth do we have statutory bodies such as the Advertising Standards Authority if we cannot rely on them to uphold their own Code of Ethics?

Put a Pixie in Your Petrol

A Sprite in your Spirit, a Bogle in your Benzine, a Fury in your Fuel, a Greyhound in your Gasoline. With acknowledgement to the oil company which, many years ago, urged us to “Put a Tiger in your Tank.”

“It is far too easy for promoters of such products to make extravagant claims, and very difficult, time consuming and expensive to challenge such claims … there needs to be a system whereby advertisers can be required to prove such fulsome claims, rather than requiring disbelievers to disprove such claims.”

Yet another moan about homeopathic medicines from the pages of Skeptical Inquirer? Wrong! The quotation above is from the New Zealand Automobile Association’s Directions (September 1992), and refers to “Petrol Pills,” claimed by the distributors to improve your car’s fuel consumption by up to 17%, increase power by 8-12%, and to reduce harmful emissions. In careful tests, the AA could not confirm any of these claims.

The “Petrol Pills” promotion was backed by the usual “unsolicited testimonials” and by vague test reports of doubtful provenance. The subject of this next note has an apparently more respectable origin. It was observed by a contributor to Skeptiker, our German counterpart, at a well-respected technical exhibition, “Ceramitec,” in Munich.

Among the many well-attested marvels of modern ceramic technology was the stand of a Japanese firm, introducing “Mixrax” pellets — a “philosopher’s stone,” according to our German colleagues. A few pellets in your petrol tank will alter the molecular structure of the fuel (!), so that the specific heat of combustion is raised. This is claimed to allow fuel savings of 10-20%, power increases of 10-20%, the reduction of CO2 and hydrocarbon emissions by 30-40%, and a general cleaning of motor and exhaust systems. This material of paranormal power is made by sintering together over twenty common ceramic materials. One of these contains uranium, and the “Mirax” pellets contain much more radioactivity than is usually considered safe. Apart from the safety aspect, automotive engineers can see no way in which these pellets could work as claimed.

Our final “pixies” do not actually go into the tank; they are magnets which are fastened round the fuel intake to the carburetor. They are claimed to “excite” the fuel as it passes to the engine, making it burn more efficiently and less pollutingly. New Scientist has reported on a number of these devices recently. The British Advertising Standards Authority has ruled against the claims made for several, on the ground that no evidence was provided to substantiate them. More colourfully, a university engineer says a dead chicken wrapped around the pipe would be just as effective. American authorities, both state and federal, have used the courts to stop the sale of these devices until the claims are proved.

A joke from my boyhood was about a man who installed so many petrol- saving devices in his car that his fuel savings exceeded 100%, and he had to stop occasionally to empty his overflowing tank. Apparently the old chestnut has not lost its point.