Natural Remedies Never Kill?

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

"Medicine" Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
“Medicine”
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Hey, look! Another completely absurd and almost fact-free article from syndicated columnist Dr. Ken Walker (who writes under the name W. Gifford-Jones):

“Health Canada has been raiding health-food stores, terrorizing proprietors and confiscating natural food supplements,” Dr. Zoltan Rona, an expert on natural remedies, recently told me.

Walker’s article is alt-med propaganda at its most pedestrian. He presents those who peddle “natural remedies” as embattled heroes who are being bullied by Health Canada, which is in the pocket of corporate interests. I find this especially amusing, given that Health Canada has recently been censured for its decision to loosen the licensing requirements for natural health products while bypassing important safety and efficacy checks. (A decision that heavily favours corporate interests, yes: the corporate interests of the multinational corporations who manufacture and distribute natural health products.)

It’s been a while since I’ve played Name That Logical Fallacy, but let’s see… The reader is presented with a false dichotomy in the form of a choice between corporate-controlled pharmaceutical medicine and feel-good “natural” remedies; the deaths resulting from the use of pharmaceutical interventions hint at the fallacy of the perfect solution (the government shouldn’t approve drugs that aren’t perfectly safe and perfectly effective); there’s at least one appeal to antiquity (Nattokinase “has been used for centuries” in Japan); and finally there’s Walker’s completely dishonest (or unforgivably ignorant) claim that “prescription drugs can kill, natural remedies never”: while this isn’t a fallacy, it is the false premise that lies at the very heart of the article.

Walker’s point seems to be that Health Canada should just get out of the way: if the remedy is “natural” (whatever that means) and/or has been used for a long time, its safety and efficacy are unimpeachable. Walker seems to be advocating for some sort of medical free market paradise, a deregulated Wild West of frontier medicine in which the government gives any old snake oil a free pass—snake oil, of course, being completely natural.

“Alternative” medicines can and do kill, directly and indirectly. Natural remedies often lack proper controls to prevent contamination or adulteration; herbal remedies are drugs, and their use in concert with pharmaceuticals can result in unexpected drug interactions; the dose of the active ingredient in herbal remedies is often inconsistent or highly variable (while it is precisely controlled in pharmaceuticals; that’s sort of the point); and when presented with a “natural alternative”, some patients may eschew science-based interventions (that are actually effective). If you’re looking for heart-wrenching stories of people killed as a result of so-called “natural” medicine, here are a couple hundred of them. “Alternative medicine” is most often simply an alternative to medicine.

Walker should be ashamed of himself for promoting such absurdities. But that’s nothing new.

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