The EU Directive, Avaaz and the myth of the Mama & Papa herbalists
Published: May 1, 2011, 1:15 p.m., Last updated: May 2, 2011, 1:29 p.m.
Avaaz is an online activist movement that campaigns in defence of human rights. They have organised massive petitions against corrective rape, in support of the Egyptian uprising, against the stoning of an Iranian woman and much more. Sometimes their petitions achieve concrete results. Avaaz demonstrates how new communication technologies can be used to hold powerful interests to account. They do good work.
So it is distressing that Avaaz is running a petition that lends support to quacks.
The petition has collected nearly 600,000 signatories. It calls upon the European Union Commission to amend a directive that goes into force today. The directive, helpfully titled 2004/24/EC, regulates herbal medicines. Renowned debunker Edzard Ernst summarises the purpose of the legislation:
A new EU directive will legislate that a licence for a herbal medicine will be given only if it has been available for a long enough time, if its safety has been established scientifically and if it is of sufficiently high quality. This must be a good thing, because it should reduce the risk to consumers.
But according to Avaaz:
In 1 day, the EU will ban much of herbal medicine, pressing more of us to take pharmaceutical drugs that drive the profits of big Pharma.
The EU Directive erects high barriers to any herbal remedy that hasn't been on the market for 30 years -- including virtually all Chinese, Ayurvedic, and African traditional medicine. It's a draconian move that helps drug companies and ignores thousands of years of medical knowledge.
We need a massive outcry against this. Together, our voices can press the EU Commission to fix the directive, push our national governments to refuse to implement it, and give legitimacy to a legal case before the courts.
The petition states:
We have a right to choose among all remedies and medicines that can keep ourselves and our families healthy.
The EU directive is difficult to understand, written in bureaucratise instead of plain English and can only be properly understood if you understand much other medicines legislation. The EU is frequently criticised for over-regulating people's lives. On the other hand Ernst has criticised the regulations for not going far enough because they do not require proof of efficacy. I don't have strong opinions on this because I don't understand the EU well enough. But the Avaaz petition is misguided for several reasons:
First, it is not clear how the EU directive will help Big Pharma. Because people won't be able to buy a particular herbal product does not imply they will pop a pharmaceutical pill instead. (Incidentally, many big pharmaceutical companies also manufacture dubious alternative remedies.)
Second, the aim of the directive is not to simply ban herbal products but to protect consumers from poorly manufactured products that, for example, have inconsistent doses and formulations. To a lesser extent it offers some protection to consumers from products that make medicinal claims.
Third, because products are herbal does not mean they are safe. The EU often has to issue warnings against herbal products.
Fourth, Avaaz's claim that the directive ignores thousands of years of medical knowledge is not true, because as Avaaz alludes, the directive allows herbal medicines that make minor claims that have been in use for 30 years or more. Nevertheless, blood-letting, trepanning. inducing vomiting and sweating toxins all have a very long history, yet all of them have been discredited. Because a remedy has been around for a long time does not mean it is good. In this regard, Ernst has a point that the EU directive does not go far enough.
Fifth, if Chinese, Ayurvedic, and African traditional medicines can show efficacy, they no doubt will be licensed. That none have been licensed yet is likely a reflection of a lack of evidence or tardy licensing applications.
Sixth, yes we have the right to choose our medicines. We may even poison ourselves if we wish. But sellers of medicines do not have an equivalent right. They are obligated to provide safe and effective products, just as my local electronics shop is obligated to sell televisions that are safe and actually work.
Finally, the underlying myth of the Avaaz petition which permeates attitudes towards alternative medicines generally is that the purveyors of these products are Mama & Papa outfits who just want to give us a bit of wholesome natural goodness. This ignores that the alternative medicine industry is huge and that it has its own lobbyists and propaganda machinery to rival Big Tobacco and Big Pharma. And although there are many small-scale alternative medicine manufacturers and sellers, their quality control and penchant for exaggerated claims are usually far worse than their larger counterparts.
I am fully aware of the problems with Big Pharma. Over the last decade, the Treatment Action Campaign has campaigned successfully against deplorable behaviour by both Big Pharma and alternative medicine sellers. Across the world pharmaceutical companies have to abide by very strict legislative frameworks for a very good reason: we want the pills we pop to be safe and effective. There is no reason why alternative medicine sellers should not be held to the same standards. Sadly, Avaaz has instead come to the aid of this dubious and dangerous industry.
Comments in chronological order (15 comments)
Michael Meadon wrote on 3 May 2011 at 1:06 p.m.: