The National Institute of Health (NIH) just released a report that says the majority of Americans turn to the Web as their first source of information for Cancer. This is somewhat disturbing, since there is an awful lot of bunkum out there. If you put the words “cure cancer” into Google’s search box, the top results are clearly quacks. (The page on Hulda Clark is simply jaw dropping, in fact, if you know anything about parasitology.)
There is currently little or no FDA regulation on a lot of materials for sale. If you want to publish a blog that says bathing in urine will clear your skin, or some other wacky claim, great. Free Speech.
You want to sell urine for that purpose–that needs to be regulated. (I’m not making the urine thing up.)
Neutraceuticals are the fastest growing segment of the food industry right now. It’s an exponential curve, if you look at sales stats. But any pimply kid can work at the GNC, or work for Herbalife, and push vitamins and herbal suppliments that you “need.”
I’ve had lots of arguments in the local health food shop (only place to get good pastrami, oddly enough) with the vitamin guys. “The amount of Vitamin C that’s recommended for you daily by the FDA won’t keep you from getting Scurvy!” was a memorable claim made by a dude who chased me all the way into frozen foods. (Apparently, I look like a malnourished pirate. Who knew?)
As long as the majority of the public understands science as information received from an authority figure, they are going to listen to these hucksters. Why do you think the actors in neutraceutical commercials wear lab coats, and pretend to look through light microscopes at DNA? Because they are invoking the regalia of science, that’s why.
We know they are actors. But the signs and symbols convey the authority, not the facts and numbers. And it is, frankly, easier to not have to think about numbers and facts, and run on autopilot, responding to familiar stimuli. The media doesn’t help by treating anecdotal evidence and controlled studies as equal sources.
A Task Force between the FDA and FTC was formed recently, and this is a good start. However, task forces don’t do diddly-poop. What we really need is a skeptical public, less willing to look for a miracle cure, and a crew of FDA agents willing to prosecute fraudulent hucksters. A cure for cancer is desperately needed. I would do pretty much anything to help keep my sister’s cancer from coming back. But I also want to see some real evidence–and an acknowledgment that there are millions of different ways to get cancer.
There will never be a single, universal-panacea, unfortunately. But we do have science, and research, and the hope that a better understanding of all the different ways cells go wrong and turn into cancers can lead us to a better time.
- FDA safe health surfing info
- Health claims about supplements (the regulations)
- Comprehensive NIH statement on vitamin health effects (PDF)
- Full NIH HealthTechnology report (PDF)
- How to be a Crank (a nice description of a lot of the folks selling bunkum)
- Nutriwatch (part of QuackWatch)