In 1887 Oscar Wilde wrote of the fury of a ghost who was offered a bottle of Dr. Dobell's tincture, a most excellent remedy for indigestion. Despite his lampooning of what we today call homeopathy and naturopathy, the demand for alternative medicines has reached an all time high.
In Oscar Wilde’s fabulously funny The Canterbury Ghost, an apparition haunting Canterbury Chase is both mortified and angry when the new owners of the property—American clergyman Hyram B. Otis and his family—flatly refuse to be fazed by his attempts to scare them.
The ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville is particularly outraged by the clergyman’s wife offering him a bottle of Dr Dobell’s Tincture when he appears looking distinctly off-color.
“If it is indigestion, you will find it a most excellent remedy,” says Mrs. Otis—at which the ghost “glared at her in fury, and began making preparations to turn himself into a large black dog, an accomplishment for which he was justly renowned.”
I read Wilde’s short story shortly after discovering that a new alternative medicine emporium had opened in my neighborhood—the third of its kind launched in the Spanish resort of Benidorm in under a year.
I find the proliferation of such outlets worrying, especially as the Spanish government promised a crackdown on homeopathy, naturopathy, and acupuncture after health and science professionals exerted pressure following several high-profile deaths. Unveiled in 2018, the plan said such outlets would be banned from health centers to avoid the “potential harmful effects” of practices when used as an alternative or a complement to effective medical treatments.
One such case, as reported by Spain’s Association to Protect Patients against Pseudo-scientific Therapies, involved 21-year-old Mario Rodriguez who died after ceasing his hospital treatment for leukemia, instead taking the advice of a naturopath who said he could cure cancer with vitamins.
Alarmingly, not all health officials share Spain’s concern. Some are even actively boosting the global complementary and alternative medicine market.
Indian regulatory authorities have reportedly made “significant investments in the development and standardization of alternative medical facilities in some of the states.”
A government body called the “Ministry of Ayush” has been set up to promote the development and research of yoga, Ayurveda, homeopathy, and naturopathy.
Such pseudoscientific initiatives, to which we could add reiki energy healing, cupping, ear candling, hexagonal water, vibrational medicine, and scores more, have driven up the value of the complementary medicine market. For example, in 2020 the U.S market was worth $82.27 billion and was expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22.03% between 2021 and 2028.
Even more worrying is the report’s suggestion that governments are promoting the development of herbal alternatives for the prevention and cure of COVID-19.
At the same time, a group called America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLD), enthusiastically supported by Trump, was a leading promoter of ivermectin, a medication typically used to treat parasitic worms in livestock.
One of the most bizarre products offered was a USB flash drive sold for $370 as a “5G Bioshield”. It purportedly offered protection from the non-existent threat of infection transmitted via 5G mobile telephone radio waves. Surely a dream come true for the tin-foil-hat brigade.
The ‘outright quackery’ of Prince Charles
Mention Professor Edzard Ernst to UK practitioners of alternative medicines and they will give you the stink eye, spit on the ground, and mutter a protective hex.
Ernst, Britain’s leading expert on complementary medicine, was propelled into the limelight in 2009 when he launched a blistering attack on Prince Charles, a committed believer in homeopathy and naturopathy, after the heir to the throne started hawking Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture.
A food supplement combining artichoke and dandelion, the tincture promises to rid the body of toxins while aiding digestion. It was launched as part of the Prince’s range of luxury organic products. Customers were advised to add a few drops of the dandelion and artichoke solution to a glass of water twice a day.
Ernst accused the prince of peddling “outright quackery”, saying he was deliberately ignoring science, preferring instead to rely on “make-believe and superstition.” Claims made for the tincture, he said, were “implausible, unproven and dangerous”.
Prince Charles contributes to the ill-health of the nation by pretending we can all over-indulge, then take his tincture and be fine again. Under the banner of holistic and integrative healthcare he thus promotes a ‘quick fix’ and outright quackery.
He then labeled the prince’s products “dodgy originals.”
Other scientists shared Ernst’s skepticism on detox. A group called the Voice of Young Science, part of the charity Sense About Science, produced a study claiming consumers were being misled.
While manufacturers use the word detox to “promote everything from foot patches to hair straighteners”, they are unable to provide reliable evidence or consistent explanations of what the detox process means, said the scientists.
The study followed a denunciation from the British Dietetic Association, which represents 6,000 UK dieticians, which said there was no “potion or lotion” to “magically” rid the body of chemicals. They dismissed the idea that dangerous toxins build up in the body, saying the body was more than capable of cleaning itself.
But Andrew Baker, then chief executive of Duchy Originals, said the tincture was a legitimate food supplement.
It is a natural aid to digestion and supports the body’s natural elimination processes. It is not, and has never been, described as a medicine, remedy or cure for any disease. Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture contains globe artichoke and dandelion, which both have a long history of traditional use for aiding digestion.
There is no ‘quackery’, no ‘make believe’, no ‘superstition’ in any of the Duchy Originals herbal tinctures. We find it unfortunate that Professor Ernst should chase sensationalist headlines in this way rather than concentrating on accuracy and objectivity.
Ernst, above, countered that there was some evidence that artichoke can lower cholesterol, but statins do a better job, and that there is no proof dandelions do any good at all.
In the same year, Prince Charles’s Duchy Originals company was forced to amend a campaign promoting two herbal medicines after regulators said healing claims on the firm’s website were misleading.
Advertisements for Duchy Herbals Echina-Relief Tincture and Duchy Herbals Hyperi-Lift Tincture, which cost £10 (around $13) per bottle, appeared on the company’s website, prompting a complaint from a member of the public who questioned the lack of scientific evidence for the products.
Ernst and the Prince had crossed swords before. Ernst believes he nearly lost his job in 2005 after Clarence House (the office of the Prince of Wales) wrote to Exeter University, where Ernst was then working, alleging he had broken a confidentiality agreement.
Ernst had signed the agreement before giving an interview for a report commissioned by the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Medicine, which was investigating whether alternative therapies such as acupuncture would save the NHS money.
When a newspaper approached him for comments on a draft of the report, which suggested the NHS could save up to £3.5 billion ($4.42 billion) if it embraced alternative therapies, Ernst said the initial findings were “outrageous and deeply flawed.” A subsequent complaint by Clarence House embroiled Ernst in a year of disciplinary hearings.
He was later cleared of all wrongdoing.