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Pro-Quackery Legislation

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Instead of conducting scientific studies, quackery's promoters use anecdotes and testimonials to promote their practices and political maneuvering to keep regulatory agencies at bay. The legislative strategies include: (1) protection through licensing laws, (2) "insurance equality" laws, and (3) weakening of regulatory agencies.

Licensing Laws

One way for unscientific practitioners to preserve their freedom to practice is to set up their own licensing boards that permit them. Chiropractors have been licensed in all 50 states since 1974. Although chiropractic boards occasionally discipline practitioners, they almost never interfere with quack practices. Naturopaths, nonphysician acupuncturists, and massage therapists (many of whom are engaged in bizarre practices) have achieved licensure in fewer states but are actively campaigning in many others. The achievement of licensure enables practitioners to assert, "Now we are recognized by law, insurance companies should have to cover our services." In many states, vigorous efforts are also being made to obtain laws that would make it difficult or impossible for licensing boards to discipline physicians who engage in "alternative" practices. A few states have passed such laws already. Perhaps the most dangerous effort related to licensing is the drive in Minnesota to set up a new "occupation" for "complementary and alternative health care practitioners who are currently unlicensed." This would include homeopaths, naturopaths, herbalists, massage therapists, nutrition and body-mind therapists, and other natural healers." The proposed law would set no minimum criteria for either education or clinical competence.

"Insurance Equality" Laws

Most insurance companies do not want to pay for treatments that the scientific community regards as ineffective. To get around this, "alternative" providers seek passage of laws to force insurance policies to cover whatever they do. Bills of this type are promoted as pro-consumer by stating that they will prevent "discrimination" and enable consumers to have "freedom of choice." Chiropractors have used this approach to gain passage of such laws in more than 40 states. Only a few states force coverage of other practitioners, but "alternative" proponents are actively lobbying to change this. Such laws restrict freedom rather than promote it. The restrict the freedom of insurance companies to restrict their coverage to proven treatments, and they force many policyholders to pay for quack practices whether they want to do so or not.

Weakening of Regulatory Agencies

Quackery's proponents have succeeded in curbing the FDA's ability to regulate "dietary supplements" and herbs and would like to cripple the ability of state licensing boards to discipline unscientific practitioners.

The Proxmire Amendment (1976) to the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibited the FDA from limiting the potency of ingredients of vitamin and mineral products that are not inherently dangerous. This bill prevents the FDA from ridding the marketplace of useless "dietary supplement" ingredients and irrational combinations of ingredients. The bill was passed because the health-food industry misled many of its customers into believing that the FDA intended to greatly restrict the sale of supplement products. More than a million protest messages poured into Congress as a result.

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was passed in 1994 following another massive lobbying campaign by the health-food industry. This law defined "dietary supplements" to include herbs as well as any substances purported to "supplement the diet by increasing dietary intake" and prevents the FDA from removing worthless ingredients from the marketplace. It also permits sellers to use misleading third-party literature to promote the sale of their products. This law has greatly weakened the ability of the FDA to protect consumers against unsubstantiated claims. Since its passage, even hormones such as DHEA and melatonin are being hawked as supplements.

The Access to Medical Treatment Act, introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), is claimed to permit health-care practitioners to provide "any medical treatment that the individual desires" that does not violate licensing laws. Practitioners may provide the treatment if: (a) it is not known to be directly harmful, (b) the patient is given written notice that the treatment is not government approved, and (c) written information is provided about the nature, anticipated benefits, and foreseeable side effects of the treatment. The Act would also require that dangerous outcomes be reported to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and that beneficial outcomes be reported to the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine. Although couched as an effort to preserve patient freedom, the bill's real purpose is to prevent government interference with unscientific practitioners. The alleged safeguards fail to protect patients from practitioners who misrepresent worthless methods as beneficial (as most "alternative" practitioners do). Many of its proponents spearheaded DSHEA's passage.

The Consumer Health Free Speech Act, introduced by Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by inserting the words "(other than food, including dietary supplements)" into its definition of the term "drug." The amended definition would read "articles (other than food, including dietary supplements) intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease in man." The bill's intention is to make it impossible for the FDA to regulate claims made for any product that a seller labels as a dietary supplement.

Bogus Food Safety Legislation

The Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act (H.R. 3377), introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), would require labels on food that contains or is produced with genetically engineered material, which it defines as material derived from any part of a genetically engineered organism, without regard to whether the altered molecular or cellular characteristics of the organism are detectable in the material. The Institute of Food Technologists have concluded that genetic modification is safe, will increase world food production, and can improve plant characteristics that will benefit farmers, consumers, and the environment. The FDA has stated that special labeling would be inappropriate unless a technique significantly changes the composition of a food. Proponents of labeling claim that legislation is needed to enable consumers to exercise their "right to choose." Many critics of biotechnology see labeling as an indirect way to undermine public trust in biotechnology.

For Additional Information

Three web sites provide political information from the viewpoint of "alternative" proponents.

Arguments against "Health Freedom" ||| Argument against AMTA
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This article was revised on May 16, 2001.