Avoiding those “dangerous” herbal medicines…

Traditional chinese herbal medicine ingredient selection with ho

In a serious blow to health freedom, Europe-wide legislation banning thousands of herbal products came into force yesterday.

For an in-depth discussion of health freedom and the many threats to it, see my interview with the brilliant Dr Robert Verkerk of Alliance for Natural Health International.

Medical journal The Lancet ran an editorial in support of the herbal clampdown in its latest edition. The reason for its support can be broadly summed up in this sentence, towards the end: “The public has a right to expect that licensed medicinal products, whether herbal or not, are safe and effective.”

Yes, they do. This sentence succinctly sums up the view of the scientific and medical establishment towards herbal medicine, and indeed alternative medicine as a whole, and taken at face value it is of course a perfectly reasonable statement.

However, there are some serious double standards at play here.

First, herbs could never hope to meet orthodox medicine’s prerequisite for declaring any drug “safe” and “effective”. That requires the vast undertaking that is a multi-phase clinical trial – something that pharmaceutical giants producing patented drugs can easily afford, but that smaller companies selling natural remedies cannot hope to. As playing fields go, this one is about as level as the Himalayas.

Second, the majority of pharmaceutical products on the market which have undergone this rigorous testing are only “safe” and “effective” by the very loosest definitions of those words.

Look into the majority of pharmaceutical drugs and you’ll find that proof of their “effectiveness” in terms of real benefits to health is thin to non-existent while on the “safety” front they are linked with numerous unpleasant, bothersome, debilitating and even dangerous short-term and long-term side effects – all the way up to and including death.

This is perhaps demonstrated most starkly by cancer chemotherapy – arguably orthodox medicine’s single biggest disgrace in terms of the vast toll of needless suffering and loss of life it has been responsible for.

You may be surprised to know that although it is one of the three most widely used approaches to cancer “treatment” (along with surgery and radiotherapy) there is absolutely no proof that it extends life in the vast majority of cancers. It may temporarily shrink tumours but because chemotherapeutic drugs also ravage immune systems and are themselves carcinogenic, patients often relapse with more aggressive cancers – if, that is, they don’t die first from the more immediate side effects.

Of course, the alternative health world has always talked about the above more loudly than the orthodox medical one.

But anyone who still believes conventional medicine has the answer to cancer should pick up oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2010 epic The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer for shocking facts and figures from within the medical establishment regarding this, and other, highly dangerous and largely ineffective orthodox cancer “treatments”.

Chemotherapeutic agents are medicines so dangerous to health, in fact, that staff administering them have to employ numerous safety protocols to avoid inhaling them or getting them on their skin while they are injecting them into the veins of critically ill men, women and children.

But I digress… Back to the supposed need to protect us from herbal medicines whose safety and effectiveness have – granted – not been clinically proven. The Lancet’s editorial cites a case where 18 Belgian women developed cancer as a result of taking herbal slimming pills in 1998.

This is a stark reminder, in case one were needed, that herbal medicines are potent, can be dangerous if not prescribed and/or taken responsibly, and need to be approached with care. However, this is also an isolated case – which is presumably why it was singled out and cited as one.

To put it in context, a University of Toronto study conducted that same year estimated that 100,000 Americans die every year from FDA-approved pharmaceutical drugs prescribed correctly, and taken as prescribed, while 2.1 million more are seriously harmed. Alcohol is responsible for another 100,000 deaths annually.

If The Lancet could quote figures like these (or even one thousandth of the magnitude) for herbal medicine, we can safely assume those would have featured prominently in its editorial.

Don’t get me wrong. I am no health freedom anarchist. I am all for regulation that genuinely protects the health and other interests of the public.

However, if the true motive of the regulatory authorities was to ensure the safety and effectiveness of medicines, they would be putting their resources into much more pressing priorities than the tiny herbal market with its pharmocopoeia of remedies which have, in many cases, a track record of centuries of use and which are, as a group, orders of magnitude safer than pharmaceutical drugs.

If you would like to join the campaign to save herbal medicine there are two things you can do right now:

Sign the Avaaz petition requesting fairer and less draconian regulation of herbal medicines in the EU

Read up on the work the Alliance of Natural Health is doing to challenge this directive in the courts and consider making a donation


  • great article thanks.

    it’s a tragic fact that this is not about protecting the public but about maximizing profits and to hell with health.

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  • 100,000 deaths a year from pharmaceutical meds and another 100,000 from alcohol…..and herbs are supposedly a threat to public health. Says it all really.

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  • This paragraph encapsulates it for me: “However, if the true motive of the regulatory authorities was to ensure the safety and effectiveness of medicines, they would be putting their resources into much more pressing priorities than the tiny herbal market with its pharmocopoeia of remedies which have, in many cases, a track record of centuries of use and which are, as a group, orders of magnitude safer than pharmaceutical drugs.”

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