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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 19579

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Fife-Yeomans J
Beware of snake oil salesmen
The Daily Telegraph 2011 May 14

Full text:

THEY are the pills and potions that promise the world.

With them you can lose up to 5kg a week, detox your body with a foot patch, help anxiety with an ear candle, relieve menopause, increase libido, stop snoring and boost concentration.

They also cure hangovers, stop the growth of cancerous tumours and “scavenge anti-ageing free radicals”.

But they all have one thing in common: they are a sham. These products are just some of the snake-oil claims the country’s advertising police have knocked back this year. Even established brands such as Colgate, Berocca, Lifebuoy and Swisse Vitamins have come in for criticism from the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s complaints panel for over-hyping products after complaints lodged about their advertisements.

Colgate was found to have misled consumers by stating that its Colgate Sensitive Pro Relief toothpaste brought “instant relief” to sensitive teeth, whereas tests showed it required direct application of the toothpaste to each sensitive tooth with a finger for one minute to work.

But it was “complementary medicines” such as the amazing-if-true Aloe Vera Barbadensis that caused most concern. The product’s website claims that for $35 plus postage the herb has at least 22 benefits, from halting the growth of cancer tumours and curing ulcers and Crohn’s disease to hydrating the skin.

The company involved provided no response to the TGA’s inquiry and the panel found it had made “unqualified representations” about serious health concerns.

In February, it requested the claims be withdrawn from advertising but yesterday they were still on the internet.

Manly Vale pharmacist Lachlan Rose said that a pharmacist would know that often these claims could not be true – but consumers would not know.

“Often patients need to take the claims with a grain of salt rather than running off to buy the latest fad,” he said.


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Far too large a section of the treatment of disease is to-day controlled by the big manufacturing pharmacists, who have enslaved us in a plausible pseudo-science...
The blind faith which some men have in medicines illustrates too often the greatest of all human capacities - the capacity for self deception...
Some one will say, Is this all your science has to tell us? Is this the outcome of decades of good clinical work, of patient study of the disease, of anxious trial in such good faith of so many drugs? Give us back the childlike trust of the fathers in antimony and in the lancet rather than this cold nihilism. Not at all! Let us accept the truth, however unpleasant it may be, and with the death rate staring us in the face, let us not be deceived with vain fancies...
we need a stern, iconoclastic spirit which leads, not to nihilism, but to an active skepticism - not the passive skepticism, born of despair, but the active skepticism born of a knowledge that recognizes its limitations and knows full well that only in this attitude of mind can true progress be made.
- William Osler 1909