Field of Science

Making money by making people sick

I’m a long-time fan of Quackwatch.org, an award-winning website built by Stephen Barrett, M.D. that covers a wide variety of questionable medical practices. I just discovered that Dr. Barrett has a sort of “Hall of Shame” page, listing some of the most egregious promoters of bad medicine and bad science. Everyone on this page has been involved with the promotion of questionable practices and products, some of them so outrageous that they’ve been the target of government enforcement actions. (Whatever conspiracy theoriest might say, the government doesn’t have the resources to go after most quacks.) Barrett helpfully tags each person with one asterisk for each enforcement action.

This is an excellent resource for anyone who might question a product that is being sold over the Internet. It’s also a good place to go if you’re skeptical about the advice offered by a self-proclaimed expert on any medical topic. Each name on Barrett’s list is linked to a more detailed page of useful facts about the person. Let’s look at what it says about Joseph Mercola, D.O., who operates a startlingly popular website dedicated to – well, let’s see.

Mercola is a major promoter of anti-vaccination myths, as I’ve written before, here and here and here. His latest anti-vax screed is an attack on Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, but I won’t discuss that today – Joseph Albietz dismantled it a few weeks ago over at Science-Based Medicine.

Mercola originally came to my attention because of his anti-vaccine activism. He maintains a special page devoted to this topic, which he states contains “vaccine news.” It should really be called “anti-vaccine news”, because that’s what it contains; it’s a font of misinformation. Essentially he claims that every vaccine is bad for you, and that vaccines are little more than a huge government-industrial conspiracy to make money for Big Pharma. Instead of getting vaccinated, he argues, you should try his all-natural treatments instead. Great idea! If everyone followed his advice, who knows how many people would die of preventable infectious diseases? I wonder if Mercola really believes his own anti-science propaganda, or if he knows it is bogus and just doesn’t care.

Regardless of whether he is sincere or not, what Mercola does really well is to promote his own products. A 2006 Business Week article pointed out that Mercola “is a master promoter, using every trick of traditional and Internet direct marketing to grow his business,” and comparing him to “the old-time snake oil salesmen of the 1800s.” That’s exactly what he is, but he uses the modern tools of internet advertising to turn his particular brand of snake oil into a very successful business.

He sells hundreds of “natural” products and makes countless claims for them, most of which are either unproven, medically vague, or irrelevant. He still sells the very same products that the FDA warned him about: he merely changed the way he advertises them. The FDA doesn’t really have any power to regulate supplements – all it can do is prevent specific claims about curing disease. Clever snake-oil salesmen like Mercola can easily circumvent the FDA with a few simple edits to their websites.

For example, Mercola was warned about a product called Chorella in both the 2005 FDA warning letter and the 2006 warning letter, but he’s still selling Chorella on his site. He claims that it will “boost your immune system”, “purify your blood and clean away toxins,” promote tissue repair, and countless other unsupported claims. All of these claims are marked with an asterisk (*), and if you scroll down you’ll find that he qualifies his claims with this:
“*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
This disclaimer appears below the instructions on how to buy the product, of course.

Mercola knows how to diversify his product line, too: he even has his own brand of cookware, which he claims will help you avoid the nasty toxins that are getting into your food during cooking. What, you didn’t know? Mercola says we should throw out all of our stainless steel, aluminum, and Teflon cookware because these materials will make you sick – unlike his cookware, which he says is “made from the earth's natural minerals and water” among its many other virtues. What, and aluminum isn’t a natural mineral? This stuff is almost hilarious, but unfortunately some people believe Mercola’s wacky claims. His cookware site claims that aluminum causes Alzheimer’s disease (wrong), that Teflon causes multiple types of cancer (wrong again), that stainless steel causes narrowing of the blood vessels (wrong again), and on and on.

Oh, I see it’s dinner time. Better fry up some synthetic fish sticks in my Teflon skillet and then eat them with my stainless steel fork. Yum.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Steven - Thanks for sharing the information about Teflon pans. I represent DuPont and it's always a pleasure to find people not buying into the misinformation that exists out there.

    Thanks. Cheers, Ross

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am certainly no expert but you make it sound like Mercola is pulling these things out of thin air. A simple Google search finds a number of articles from msm sites (e.g., http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/25/AR2006012502041.html).

    Also, apparently there was one study that did link aluminum to Alzheimer's but since then other studies have not corroborated the connection. Either way, aluminum does have low levels of toxicity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aluminium#Health_concerns). It seems logical and like cheap health insurance to avoid products and habits that may be unhealthy -- even if only over long periods of time and high volumes.

    Your portrayal of Mercola seems as one-sided as his.



    ReplyDelete
  3. Lots of adjectives, name-calling, and weasel words. I'm trying to find any cohorent argument or rebuttal in this article.

    I did get a kick from the fallacy of appealing to authority. Even in this day and age, argument from authority is still alive and well...

    Well done, Steven.

    ReplyDelete

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