Time for Blackmores to pull that evidence out of a hat

Where are all the people dying in the street from complementary medicines?

Marcus Blackmore – September 2011

Although a seemingly innocuous if not arrogant turn of a logical fallacy called Begging The Question (and a few others as well) I was surprised at how gullible Blackmore may actually take Australians for. Four deaths in two years and 40 serious adverse reactions reported. But, not in the street to my knowledge. Forget the lead, mercury and arsenic poisoning from imported Chinese herbs.

In this case he’s trying to dismiss the vast vacuum of evidence for efficacy of Blackmores hanky panky, by confusing no medicine (or placebo) with a bad medicine. Confusing no effect with malignant effect. It’s also an inconsistent non-sequitur in that he’s applying the logic we would apply to real drugs (or consumer products under fire) to propose the absence of an outcome that by definition, cannot follow. Regardless of how you see this nonsense, it’s a pearler. It encapsulates so much of what’s wrong with regulation of alternative medicine today, in just a dozen words.

Fortunately for consumers it makes Blackmore look quite the villain. It has zero to do with the problem at hand. Namely the current Pharmacy Guild deal done during an evolving awareness of unsustainable claims and corresponding outrage. Although he hasn’t said this in response to recent criticism, he has been scathing of sound criticism, using this phrase before. More to the point it’s a taunting, if rather melodramatic version of What’s the harm? which to skeptics is a huge clanger. Professor Alastair MacLennan head of obstetrics and gynaecology at Adelaide University, cites “four harms of ‘harmless’ therapy”.

In the recent Trick or Treat article by Gary Tippet, MacLennan is summed up:

Probably most important is delay in seeking effective therapy, if there is one; increasing evidence of side effects and drug interactions, which are under-reported; a placebo effect that wears off within months and sees people ”becoming disappointed, disillusioned and depressed as they move along the health food shop counter seeking placebo after placebo”; and a multibillion-dollar industry that is a waste of the scarce health dollar, if they’re not doing any real good.

Interestingly, Marcus Blackmore’s Dirty Dozen words resonates more or less with each of those points. But back to the fallacy. Just because something isn’t doing harm doesn’t mean it’s doing good. Nor can potential benefits (such as supplements suitable for malnutrition) justify wide scale use or the – quite frankly – astonishing prices of Blackmores’ concoctions. Had he asked the question, “Where are all the people wasting money on complementary medicines?”, one could just steer him toward customer exit of any large store.

Fairfax Poll Today

Chemist Warehouse have made their position plain. But don’t abandon your trusted pharmacy/pharmacist. These guys are about slicing trade from competitors. Including (in my suburb) with the 30 plus metre aisle of junk potions bulging with Blackmores’ goods.

Their grab for the “integrity dollar” was written up today in The Age. The Life and Style section included a poll. Of note, the article continued:

However, in a sign the guild is backing away from the deal, it wrote in its latest newsletter that the Blackmores’ prompts in its computer system were a pilot only, which would be reviewed.
”Contrary to some media reports, there is no compulsion whatsoever on pharmacists to sell these products, nor is there any direct incentive to any pharmacist to sell them,” the guild’s newsletter said.

Fortunately the lack of evidence is now evident. In a great interview recently on ABC is Professor Paul Glaziou of Bond University from the Centre for Research in Evidence based practice. He went looking for and couldn’t find the evidence one would expect from Blackmores. He’s asked for them to make it available. He shouldn’t have to – nobody should be left looking for evidence here.

Or download here.

The clash of reality catching up with an industry that survives on social psychological trends such as the need to take control of ones health, distrust of pharmaceutical companies and a prevailing zeitgeist of choosing something – anything – natural in an environment we are erroneously told is highly toxic is getting louder. Marketers of this junk know this and they’ve been fighting a semantic battle against the growing doubts of efficacy, trying to head off reality at the pass.

We’ve gone from “natural”, to “alternative”, to “complementary” and now we’re getting scammed with Integrative. As though this cockypop mix of potion and ritual actually has a place waiting for it within the current model of evidence based medicine. Purveyors of naturopathy, vitamin therapy, supplemental, acupuncture, reiki, massage, kinesiology, meditation, homeopathy, chiropractic (the one stop shop for self-health sabotage) have delighted in maligning “allopathy” for years.

The paucity of evidence to defend the need for unproven products is summed up well by Dr Wendy Morrow, chief executive of the Complementary Healthcare Council:

Quite frankly, if complementary medicines didn’t work it would have been a fad that was here and gone in the blink of an eye. Their increasing use shows they’re not a fad, they do work if used appropriately, and I don’t see that people are going to stop using them.

Which could also be said about any of the useless rituals above which also come bundled with attacks on vaccination, antibiotic therapy, medication in general and ample conspiracies about “allopathy”. However, late on Friday Blackmores did publish a research summary. Bear in mind however that claims made in advertising are subject to the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code which is something I wish to look into shortly.

Pharmacy news items reported on Monday October 3rd:

Blackmores reports that while there is evidence to suggest that some medications can affect how the body uses nutrients, this is ‘unrecognised or overlooked by many healthcare practitioners’. Blackmores says that the evidence was compiled in line with the TGA’s Levels of Evidence Guidelines for Listed products and demonstrates that ‘some prescription medicines diminish nutrients and that supplementation can improve nutritional status’, adding that the evidence for its Companion range was reviewed in consultation with ‘leading [unnamed] pharmacists’.

NPS have published Examining The Evidence and looked into each of the four “companion medicines”. They find evidence was “absent” except for the probiotic option, which was “limited”. To summarise each area:

  • Supporting evidence for using Co-enzyme Q10 with statins (none)

Evidence does not support the use of Co-enzyme Q10 to prevent myalgia (muscle pain) during treatment with a statin. No trials have shown that taking a Co-enzyme Q10 supplement with a statin prevents myalgia.

Randomised controlled trials of Co-enzyme Q10 to manage statin-associated myalgia have conflicting results and do not support routine use with statin therapy.

  • Supporting evidence for using magnesium supplements with PPI therapy (none)

Magnesium deficiency or ‘hypomagnesaemia’ has been associated with long-term use of proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). Case reports indicate that stopping the PPI is the best way to normalise magnesium levels. Taking a magnesium supplement with the PPI may not be enough to correct the magnesium deficiency.

No studies have investigated the use of a magnesium supplement to prevent magnesium deficiency during PPI therapy. A magnesium supplement should only be considered if a PPI has caused a deficiency in magnesium that requires treatment. Evidence for using a supplement with a PPI to treat magnesium deficiency is based on case reports.

  • Supporting evidence for using zinc supplements with antihypertensives (none)

Routine use of zinc supplements is unnecessary for people taking blood pressure lowering medicines (or ‘antihypertensives’). There is evidence that long-term treatment with certain types of antihypertensives may reduce zinc levels, but it is unclear how often this causes zinc deficiency.

  • Supporting evidence for using probiotics to alleviate antibiotic-associated diarrhoea (some)

There is some evidence from trials that probiotics may prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhoea in some adults and children. But limitations with the trials mean that the true effect of probiotics is uncertain, as is the most effective product or dose.

58 million prescriptions per year. Coke and fries. 90% non-compliance with regulation. No regulatory enforcement because it’s not “cost effective”. A recent audit finding the TGA has failed for decades to counter deceptive, false and misleading advertisements. If compound X is today found to be unable to make claim Y proper policing applies only to new products coming onto the market. Products already on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods cannot be edited.

Given what’s been leaking out about the industry and the paper tiger apathy of the TGA, it shouldn’t be surprising Blackmores’ “Coke and Fries” is geared for consumers money, not health benefits.