Storm in a Tea Cup

Tim Minchin’s rather brilliant poem Storm is being made into a film. You can see the newly released trailer above. The full poem (available here) tells a rather familiar story for thinking people: how do you react when cornered by absurd ‘alternative’ thinking in a social situation? In Storm, Tim describes a North London dinner party situation where the eponymous guest starts spouting fluffy headed views on alternative medicine. What to do? Bite your lip and preserve the social harmony, or let out the bottled anger building up inside and ‘rock the boat’?

You see, as someone who rejects the fluffy thinking of quackery, we are made to look like extremists. When so many hold at least partially accepting views on alternative medicine (“Well of course I don’t believe in [that quackery], but once I tried [this quackery] for my bad back/ME/electrosensitivity, and I was cured, and I am not easily taken in by such things.” Sigh. ) we are easily portrayed as being narrow minded and rude. We live in a society when the unwritten rules of polite conversation state that we should agree, when we have opposing views on a subject, that the truth can happily live somewhere in between our views. And as such, our pleasant dinner party remains convivial.

But Truth knows no such compromise. Reality will not obligingly drift into the middle of our positions for us. On questions of science, it is quite possible for people to be utterly wrong. And sometimes this matters. Flaky views on medicine are not harmless – they have great powers to harm. Our social compromise is often preventing dangerous views from being challenged. But maybe times are changing a little bit. Maybe holding dangerous views about vaccines or homeopathic pills is becoming less socially acceptable these days. Comics like Dara O’Briain routinely mock homeopaths. TV comics like Mitchell and Webb have done the same thing with their classic Homeopathy A&E sketch. And newcomer Tim Minchin is regularly appearing on shows like Jonathan Ross. And Ross himself even took his family to the weekend long James Randi’s TAMLondon 2009.

But there is a way to go. Belief in alternative medicine is seen as normal in so many areas of life. We saw a bizarre exchange in the House of Lords this week on the regulation of astrology where Baroness Thornton stated, “Complementary and alternative medicine therapies have proven to be effective, cost-effective and safe.” Where she got that notion from I am not sure.

In the Telegraph, the actress Julia Sawalha provided us with a Perfect Storm moment when she discussed her medical preparations for her holidays. In a moment of total irresponsibility and stupidity she promoted homeopathy for the prevention of malaria,

What do you always take with you?

My homeopathic kit; it’s got 36 homeopathic remedies that have rescued me from food poisoning and infection many a time. I don’t get inoculations or take anti-malaria tablets when I go abroad, I take the homeopathic alternative, called “nosodes”, and I’m the only one who never goes down with anything.

It is worth reminding ourselves once again how even the Queen’s homeopath condemns such dangerous nonsense. Dr Peter Fisher says,

I’m very angry about it because people are going to get malaria – there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.

Sawalha feels comfortable risking her own life by being unprotected against a fatal disease. What is worse is the Telegraph also feels comfortable allowing her to promote this nonsense to its readers. Julia Sawalha’s own contradictory position is exposed by herself when she describes her ‘Worst holiday experience’,

Falling ill in Nepal. I’d been travelling around India and when I got to Nepal the air was very fresh and I took loads of deep breaths. But I must have got something airborne, because within two hours I went down. I lay in my sleeping bag for three days, shivering and unable to move. I couldn’t eat or drink or lift my head off the pillow.

So much for her 36 homeopathic travel remedies that makes sure she is the ’only one who never goes down with anything’.

But society appears to not just accept, but also applaud more concerted attempts to promote nonsense pseudo-medical beliefs. Take Dounne Alexander who set up Gramma’s, “an ethical enterprise, specializing in the manufacture of traditional herbal foods”. Gramma’s makes ‘healing cuisine’ and includes a range of sauces, seasonings and herbal teas. Alexander has won many awards for her entrepreneurship. Most notably she received in 2006 an MBE for ‘services to the food industry’.

Now Dounne may have received the highest blessing from Her Majesty, and received orders for her products from Waitrose, Sainsburys, Harrods, Selfridges and Fortnum and Mason, but she has also attracted the attention of various regulatory authorities. You see, Dounne Alexander does not just claim her foods are healthy. On her web sites she includes testimonials about how the teas appear to treat cancer.

My dog had cancer lumps in his mouth which had swollen up like the size of two eggs. It was bleeding and dripping and I had to follow him around with a towel.

After giving him Zara’s Herbal Tea for ten days, I noticed the lumps have gotten smaller – (still there but hardly noticeable). The bleeding has also stopped.

She appears to be quite aware that making claims to treat cancer with her foods would be illegal. Her web site tells us that,

‘So you think nothing can heal cancer?!’

Did you know…

1939 CANCER ACT makes it illegal for any natural product (i.e. herbal food, remedy or supplement) to make health claims on their benefits? Even if proven safe and effective, it is a criminal offence to promote or sell it

This does not appear to stop her saying that “See how our products combined with a balanced diet can help fight against this list of common illnesses …i.e. Cancer, diabetes, heart conditions, etc”.

We are then led to a page that describes all sorts of nonsense quackery.

The main reason we become ill is because our ‘BLOOD’ has turned ACID instead of ALKALINE. Scientific evidence has shown that disease cannot survive in ‘alkaline-blood’. Acidity is caused from a deficiency of essential ‘vitamins & minerals’ in our daily diet.

Which is, of course, complete gobbledygook. The foods are described as having medicinal properties, such as,

ZARA’S HERBAL TEA: powerful ‘blood cleanser and immune strengthener’. Power packed with essential ‘blood cleaning’ medicinal herbs which provides the balance between what we ‘eat & drink’.

More utter nonsense.

The Advertising Standards Authority decided that an advert of Dounne’s did not meet their ‘social responsibility’ guidelines. The advert contained the endorsement,

After a consultation last week, my skin cancer appears to be clearing up. This I believe is a direct result of taking ZARA’S HERBAL TEA ‘neat’. I am astounded by these results as this is after only 1 month

And now Dounne Alexander appears to be complaining that the MHRA have stopped her selling this tea as they regard it as a medicine. Naturally, Dounne is furious (pdf), and sounding just like Minchin’s Storm, she says,

It’s hard to find any justification other than the elimination of competition by destroying health businesses to secure maximum profits for the pharmaceutical industry.

Alternatively, Dounne, it could be that suggesting your tea had cancer healing medicinal properties is completely irresponsible when there is no good reason to believe this to be true.

I am sure that both Julia Sawalha and Dounne Alexander MBE would be charming and entertaining dinner party guests. However, with increasing awareness of this sort of dangerous nonsense, I am afraid a small crack might appear in my diplomacy dyke.

On this theme…

13 Comments on Storm in a Tea Cup

  1. No sooner do I think that it can't get any worse some dumb fuckwit like Sawalha steps up to the plate to prove me wrong. As for Alexander…words fail me.

    Nice post, thanks.

  2. The Cancer Act makes it illegal for anything to be advertised as a treatment for cancer. It applies just as much to "Big Pharma" as it does to "natural products".

    That's pretty useless as a pro-pharma conspiracy…

  3. Julia Sawalha here,
    I would like to point out that journalists are selective, and edit your comments into soundbites. It was remiss of me(not that they would have printed it) not to mention that homeopaths do advise you to take every precaution possible against malaria, and one is asked to sign a form to state that you understand the risk involved if you do not take the conventional medicine. It is my choice as an individual not to do so in certain countries I travel to. What I had said, was that I had never had to suffer the side-effects of malaria tablets which I have witnessed make people very unwell. That is what I meant by not falling ill. I apologise profusely if the article has been misleading. I have to post this anonymously as I don't know how to do otherwise.

  4. Hi Julia, thanks for dropping by.

    Thanks for clarifying what you meant. Of course, you will never get side effects from homeopathic pills as they are just plain sugar, there is nothing in them. But they also offer no protection too for the very same reason.

    Of course, it is your choice not to take anti-malarials, and yes, some do create side effects in some people. However, malaria is a very serious disease with a frequent 'side-effect' of death. It is terrible that homeopaths tell people that their sugar pills (for that is all they are) can in anyway protect you from this risk.

    This topic is a 'hot button' on this blog. I have been legally threatened for pointing out this dangerous practice amongst UK homeopaths. They fail to see how their beliefs directly put people at risk.
    A few years ago, BBC Newsnight did an investigation into homeopaths offering malaria advice. None gave the holistic advice required (nets, anti-bite precautions, covering up, anti-malaria tablets). All offered their sugar pills. This practice will kill people.

    In Africa, UK homeopaths go there and offer such deadly advice to the poorest of people. When I wrote about this the Society of Homeopaths make legal threats against me. Subsequently, they made several very misleading statements about their own attitudes and actions. The Society of Homeopaths fail to uphold their own code of ethics about this issue and as such, their customers can be very misled by them.

    Naturally, the newspapers will heavily edit and even distort what you say. I do worry that celebrities should not be advocating unconventional medical beliefs in such a setting as the consequences of being wrong can be quite serious as the charity Sense About Science pointed out last week.

    Hope we are still on for that dinner party.

  5. If Julia Sawalha had mentioned to the Telegraph, "that homeopaths do advise you to take every precaution possible against malaria," that would have been even worse because it isn't generally true and it would give the false impression that homeopaths, in general, are responsible people. They are not.

    There have been a number of cases of people who have got malaria as a result of the crap advice they got from a homeoquack. Let's not forget Janeza Podgoršek, who relied on homeopathy to stop him catching malaria while on a trip to Africa in 1996. He caught the virus and brought it back to his native Slovenia, where he fell ill with malaria and asked the same homeopath to treat him, which she did. He died. The homeoquack went to prison and quite right too but it shouldn't have taken a man's death to send her there. Anyone promoting the notion that homeopathy can be effective against killer diseases is a criminal, AFAIC, including Sawalha.

    I note she doesn't refer to her experience of "not going down with anything" in Nepal, in her useless response.

  6. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0999/is_7271_321/ai_67708490/

    "…A 40 year old woman……..forthcoming holiday in Togo……homeopathic drugs were prescribed……returning to France with a fever……medical[sic] advice from her homoeopath……took homoeopathic drugs with vitamins……she felt worse……admitted to hospital……For two months she received intensive care for multiple organ system failure due to P falciparum"

    Julia – you got lucky. Don't imagine for a moment that your ineffective sugar pills protected you from anything.

  7. Could posting this without a warning open the Telegraph to being sued by anyone who followed the same routine and unfortunately got malaria?

  8. Julia is in 'the business' and should know that copy gets edited she could have insisted that her comments on anti-malarial should be stated. She is still extremely stupid to bother with sugar pills that have been exposed to a drop of water. She could just buy a litre of de-ionised water from the supermarket for 69p and that would be several life-times of homoeopathic medicine for every illness she could imagine.

  9. I recently came across this little gem:

    http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/joininghandsinhealth/

    It’s a petition got up by Dounne’s people to protest against some unnamed government force which will, in 2011, be cracking down on our basic human right to choose for ourselves the manner in which we are medicated, be it with pharmecuticals or homeopathic remedies. Typically it is the most blatant piece of advertising I have ever seen.

    • They seem to be basing the whole thing on a claim that the directive was passed in secret and is therefore unlawful.

      The course of the legislative procedure is documented here or here, showing where and when information about it was published. This document mentions in its final paragraph some of the consultation process, and lists the sort of bodies that were consulted: “the major associations of patients, consumers, pharmaceutical industry, distributors, doctors, and pharmacists”.

      This MHRA document lists at the end the parties they consulted about the UK implementation. If there was a conspiracy to keep this secret, it must have been huge, and must have included some rather unlikely parties.

  10. Just attended a talk by Dounne, very interesting. Of course i’m sure you engage in similar public activities and don’t hide your beliefs behind the veil of the internet… Thanks for linking to the petition. Just signed! Great stuff.

  11. Up to others what they think, but the public should be left to make our own minds up concerning what we want to take into our own bodies. I know from my own experience how Gramma’s herbal tea has helped me, and even health professionals know the valuable used of herbs, after all, drugs are synthesized from herbs. I wouldn’t refuse conventional medicine, but I would like a choice.

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