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The Rise of Snake Oil In America

The financial burden of snake oil

Prickly snake oil seeds are taking root in the soil of our broken healthcare system. Consumer discontent and feelings of helplessness are the manna of charlatans – and they are growing fat in our lean times. Unprecedented opportunity for promotion via the Internet, coupled with chronically short audience attention spans and generalized patient exhaustion (from the treadmill of life) are creating the perfect climate for the spread of pseudoscience.

I must admit that I had turned a blind eye to the whole pseudoscience movement until fairly recently. I figured it was harmless enough – placebos that might engage peoples’ minds in a more optimistic view of disease. But little did I realize that this tumor on the face of medicine would become life threatening to the advancement of science and truth.

Take for example the money that Americans spend on weight loss supplements – 1.3 billion dollars per year, and yet the American Academy of Family Physicians has found no evidence to support the use of a single one. That’s more money than the World Health Organization’s annual budget, and more than Great Britain spends on cancer research in a year. The supplement industry in general rakes in 20 billion dollars a year, which is more than the total amount spent by the US government in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

And what do snake oil salesmen think of this colossal waste of resources? Why, they’re touting it as a new era of enlightenment of course. They weave in “all natural” products, “mindfulness” practices, and “detoxification” programs into a comprehensive feel-good message that is a soothing balm to anxious souls. In reality they are leading the public down a garden path towards a false wellness nirvana, fleecing them as they go, and sowing seeds of mistrust for science-based medicine.

The rise of snake oil salesmen

The strongest potion in the snake oil salesman’s repertoire is the placebo. Placebos are treatments that work based solely on the power of suggestion. A so-called placebo effect occurs when a patient’s symptoms are altered in some way (i.e., alleviated or exacerbated) by an otherwise inert treatment, due to the individual expecting or believing that it will work. If a snake oil salesman is to become truly successful, he must build a case for his wares through anecdotes and testimonials. To obtain these, he must be a master of the power of suggestion, cultivating a small number of “true believers” from which to conjure evidence for the effectiveness of his oil. He need not convince the majority, a small minority of passionate believers will do. As Mark Twain writes, “The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might.” Therefore, a common denominator with many snake oil salesmen is charisma and charm.

Once the charlatan has developed his small but passionate following, and some miracle cure anecdotes, he will then start playing the role of a victim. He will look for individuals who are willing to challenge his pseudoscientific claims, and then cry out to his loyal followers that he is being persecuted. He will use racism imagery to describe an illusionary bias against himself and the “good” that he is trying to do for those who are open-minded and willing to forsake “paternalistic” science. His followers will be further emboldened to carry the banner of this “downtrodden hero” as they continue to fall for his under-dog psychology.

The snake oil salesman, of course, will not gain traction with key opinion leaders in medicine, so he is left to draw from the Hollywood celebrity pool to further evangelize the masses. Medical leaders will roll their eyes and ignore his obvious pseudoscience, much to the detriment of the general public who have a hard time discerning science from pseudoscience. The charlatan then points to the medical profession’s silence as “proof” that they cannot deny his claims, further convincing susceptible listeners.

Then years later as snake oil salesmen realize that there is further strength in numbers, they gather together to form the first snake oil union. They create a continuum of oily treatments, gathering anecdotes and testimonials from one another in pseudoscientific “meta-analyses” to further strengthen their assault on science and reason. They find wealthy donors and benefactors who are impressed by their growing numbers, and match them with cash-strapped academic centers who will desperately accept funds for any vaguely scientific purpose. The snake oil team now has won a respectable platform from which to grossly inflate statistics about public use of “alternative medicine” (lumping “prayer” into the list of therapies which, combined together, would have you believe that over 60% of Americans are using alternative therapies like homeopathy).

Snake oil goes mainstream

Now that the very same snake oil that medical experts didn’t wish to dignify with a response is being promoted by academic centers, we are obligated to fund research into the potential therapeutic uses of these placebos, wasting countless millions in government funding to study implausible therapies. With a critical mass of snake oil believers, few dare to challenge the wisdom of this approach, and have become passive observers in a downward spiral that is harming the credibility of the very centers founded to promote objective scientific inquiry.

Can good science separate the wheat from the alternative chaff? Yes, but the problem is that few people seem to care about truth any more. While the American Academy of Family Physicians demonstrates that no single weight loss supplement is recommended for public use, the public is spending 1.3 billion dollars per year on these very supplements. Why? Maybe the AAFP is not reaching the public with their message, or maybe people are simply unable to resist the sweet lure of false promises?

Nonetheless, there is a growing movement in medicine to reclaim scientific territory stolen while we shrugged passively at the snake oil lobby. Blogs like Science-Based Medicine and Respectful Insolence are uniting physicians who believe in the importance of objective scientific inquiry as the foundation for the best therapeutic decision-making.

As the healthcare budget crunch looms, further pressure will be placed on providers and pharmaceutical companies to demonstrate the efficacy of their treatments in order to be eligible for coverage. This will be a boon to scientific medicine, as therapies that actually work will (by budgetary necessity) be preferentially selected for reimbursement. While Big Pharma undergoes further scrutiny, they will also turn to science to demonstrate the utility (or lack thereof) of their drugs. Therefore, those in search of truth will not be completely thwarted by pseudoscience.

Yet patients are free to pay out-of-pocket for any number of alternatives to scientifically proven medicine. I predict that further healthcare access limitations will drive more people to look for placebos than ever before, much to the detriment of those who have diseases that are treatable or curable through proven therapies. I worry far more about missed therapeutic opportunities than the dangers of the snake oil itself.

So my final advice is this: eat a well-balanced, calorie controlled diet, engage in regular exercise, stay within a healthy weight range, sleep well, participate in loving relationships, don’t smoke, do drugs, or drink in excess. At least 60% of your medical problems will be prevented if you do these things. You do not need to waste your money on supplements and snake oil – put that money into a savings account that you can access in case you become seriously ill and your insurance doesn’t cover all the best, evidence based care that you need.

Do not tithe to the snake oil salesman. Resist the dulcet tones of the false promises. Save your money to do good, and listen to your own voice of reason.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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5 Responses to “The Rise of Snake Oil In America”

  1. ValJonesMD says:

    No, my point was about supplements that claim to be “miracle cures” without any supporting evidence. There is good evidence that fish oil is heart healthy.

  2. C Coleman Brown MD says:

    I think it was Us News that had a cover on alternative medicine recently. I have to say that some things are probably beneficial to some patients, such as acupuncture, etc.. I am a little skeptical of “healing touch” and most, if not all homeopathy. I just wish these “medicines” could be studied and regulated a little more diligently. I mean how many milligrams or grams of echinacea really work?

    Despite this, the info about weight loss supplements is amazing. I constantly battle patients on using any of these things and try to encourage healthy eating and exercise. The quick fix is just that, quick. Maybe even so fast it didnt work.

  3. Amka says:

    Thanks Val.

    Fish oil supplements, I was told at my opthomalogist’s office also has benefits for tear production. But if we were to have more fish in our diet, we wouldn’t need to take supplements.

    I did take fish oil when breastfeeding, and I guess I kept on after learning the benefits. The thing that started me, though, was learning about DHA in infant brain development (discovered when they were looking at why babies who nursed had very slightly higher average IQs than formula fed babies) and then getting really angry at the baby formula makers for scaring moms by claiming the formula had more DHA in it than the breastmilk of American moms. They did this through pregnancy congragulation packets and by selling a very expensive DHA supplement for nursing mothers which was nothing but cheap fish oil.

  4. ValJonesMD says:

    Dear Amka,

    I think you hit the nail on the head: if we eat a healthy balanced diet, most of us can get all the nutrition we need from food. Yes, there are exceptions (like people who are allergic to milk may benefit from calcium supplements, and pregnant women may benefit from folic acid supplements) but the issue is that in the majority of cases, weight loss miracle cures and placebos “applied directly to the forehead” are a waste of money, and worse, may also be harmful.

    The scare tactics you describe are typical of for-profit supplement and/or pharmaceutical manufacturers. Strangely, the pharmaceutical companies are more regularly reprimanded for unfair practices than the snake oil team. I think they all deserve to be judged equally – when Big Pharma witholds negative studies (thus making their pills seem more effective than they are) they should be called to account for that. It’s just much less common for the tactics of the supplement industry to be pointed out and subjected to objective testing. They are potentially getting away with $20 billion of our money each year. Someone’s gotta stop and say – do we really need to be buying this stuff?

  5. Joe G says:

    This testimony from the GNC Board Chairman

    is particularly telling:

    Q. Have you ever heard of things like safety studies or toxicology
    studies or . . . clinical studies? . . .

    A. Some.

    Q. And what do those terms relate to?

    A. I believe to the drug industry. . . . We’re not in the drug
    business, we’re in the food business as defined by the FDA.

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