Thank God, Australia is now licensed to ‘moisten intestines’ and ‘replenish the gates of vitality’

A while back I spoke with a politician who was very cross about the decision by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to make codeine products no longer available without prescription. When I asked why, the answer was, “Codeine is great for jet lag, especially with a Scotch.”

Clearly there was some confusion here about the indication of (the painkiller) codeine, which can cause serious side effects, especially in combination with other drugs and alcohol.

An ‘indication’ is defined in the law as ‘the specific therapeutic use(s) of the goods.’ Confusion about indications of medications is common. For example, people often mistakenly believe that green snot is an indication for antibiotics or that back pain is an indication for diazepam (Valium).

And, just to be clear, codeine is not indicated for jet lag.

Dryness in the triple burner

Unfortunately the Australian Government has just muddled the water by passing two bills in the Senate that allow manufacturers of vitamins, supplements and herbal complementary medicines to use a range of odd claims, such as ‘expel damp-heat in the bladder’, ‘moisten intestines’ and ‘cool blood heat’.

It appears the TGA’s new list of permitted indications is not based on scientific evidence.

RACGP President Bastian Seidel expressed concern about many of the indications. He said: “(…) phrases such as ‘moistens dryness in the triple burner’, ‘replenishes gate of vitality’ and ‘softens hardness’ have no place in any genuine healthcare situation. These types of claims are extremely misleading and could lead to significant harm for patients.”

Profitable industry

The new process has been warmly welcomed by Complementary Medicines Australia (CMA), representing stakeholders in the complementary healthcare industry and the Australian Self Medication Industry (ASMI), the peak body for the non-prescription medicine industry.

The Australian complementary medicines sector has grown rapidly in recent years – and manufacturers have just received a pat on the back from the Senate. Unfortunately, many Australian health consumers will be just as confused as doctors about these claims.

Spotlight on wellness warriors: What you need to know

“Hope is the physician of each misery” ~ Irish proverb.

I understand the power of hope in life & death, but sometimes it comes at a cost. It is painful to see that some of my sickest cancer patients are paying large sums of money to practitioners in the wellness industry who claim they have found a miracle cure. Glamorous and healthy looking health gurus attract mass online followings by selling a dream. Many of these wellness warriors are modern-day snake oil salesmen. The suitcase filled with dubious cures has been replaced by commercial websites, Facebook pages and YouTube accounts.

Jessica Ainscough

Jessica Ainscough was a self-proclaimed wellness warrior. She self-administered daily coffee enemas and took vitamin supplements to beat cancer. She started chemotherapy, but eventually declined it, as well as other conventional treatments like surgery and radiation, which she called the ‘slash, poison and burn method’. Although many of her followers thought her alternative approach was successful, she lost her battle and sadly died at the age of thirty.

The fact that she tried complementary therapies in itself is not surprising, as many people in her situation would do the same. The problem is that Ainscough was very good at selling unproven products to cure cancer, for example by claiming the methods ‘starved cancer cells’.

Ainscough completed an online course at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York, and according to the Australian newspaper, she said it had taught her how to organically attract ‘an amazing tribe’ of people who trusted her.

Via her blog she offered a ‘lifestyle transformation guide’ for just under $1000. She also sold cosmetics and other products. It appears her business model was profitable, as she wrote on her blog: “I earned six figures within a year of completing B-School and have doubled my income every year since.” Ainscough later denied claiming that she had cured herself.

Oncologist Dr Ranjana Srivastava is concerned about these health scams. “There is a legitimate role for a variety of complementary therapies such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, a balanced diet and moderate exercise,” she says in this article. “The problem arises when the generic multivitamin tablet from the chemist morphs into weekly intravenous injections costing $1000 a shot. Or when the notion of cleansing the body of toxins is exploited with sham diets and enemas that land patients in the very hospitals they are determined to avoid.”

Belle Gibson

Yet, most people don’t seem to be bothered by the modern-day snake oil merchants. I suspect that is because their fantastic stories appeal to our yearning for inspiration and herbal cures. What’s more appealing than trying the same remedy that miraculously cured someone we know? Understandably many cancer patients are desperate, especially when conventional treatments have side effects or are not effective anymore. But it is desperation that makes people vulnerable to dishonest gurus and wellness warriors.

What upsets us most is when the wellness warriors lie about their own health problems – like Belle Gibson.

Gibson’s approach was very similar to Jessica Ainscough’s. She claimed to have cancer and promoted a range of alternative cures to treat cancer. Her wellness and nutrition app ‘The Whole Pantry’ was a best-seller. Unfortunately Gibson never had cancer, and journalists found out she failed to deliver on promised donations to charity.

“What enrages us all,” says psychiatrist Dr Helen Schulz in this blog post, “is those who don’t have any training in health, who deceive the public for overt secondary gain (financial) and delay others from getting help until it’s too late.”

Mainstream medicine

In many ways doctors and other registered health professionals are the opposites of wellness warriors. By law we are restricted in the way we promote and advertise our services. We don’t sell personal health stories, we often have to bring bad news, we don’t always give our patients what they want, we can’t promise total cure, our treatments may have side effects and often we are unable to offer a cure at all.

No wonder lifestyle coaches and health gurus attract large tribes. But, if homeopathy, vitamins and coffee enemas would cure cancer and other maladies, I’d be the first to prescribe it.

3 simple tips

I’m not saying that the wellness industry as a whole is unreliable. I’m also not saying to stay away from complementary therapies. But Ainscough and Gibson are not the first and won’t be the last as the wellness industry is not regulated in the way mainstream medicine is.

To avoid disappointment, please remember:

  • Magic cures don’t exist
  • Think twice before you pay large sums
  • Talk to your specialist or GP before you make a decision.

Stay safe.