Leah Wood, the 39-year-old daughter of Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, has become an activist for alternative medicine. In an interview with the Daily Mail she gives us an insight into the way many alternative medicine fans think and argue.
Alternative therapies, she claims, kept her father young (you could have fooled me). The Woods will not see a doctor if they can find a natural alternative; they even claim to have cured their grandmother from cancer using apricot seeds; Leah explains: ‘Nan had breast cancer and mum, who is a big proponent of alternative medicine as well, said “mum, we are going to help you so let’s investigate and get some advice”. Nan had different treatments and ate an organic diet including apricot seeds and cured herself. Conventional chemotherapy just breaks down your immune system and makes you weaker so I don’t understand the point. You should be building up your immune system and fighting the cancer.
‘As a family, we have always been brought up with alternative medicines and homeopathy and have been taught the importance of eating well,’ Leah says. ‘I use homeopathy a lot with my kids and alternative remedies… Your body is an amazing mechanism. If you do have cancer you can extend your life for a longer time with the right treatments.’
Recently Leah has decided to back a campaign against the influence of big pharmaceutical companies on the NHS. For this purpose, she even published several nude pictures of herself. She believes that doctors prescribe ineffective treatments which patients often do not need. Why would they do that? Because they want to line the pockets of the big drug companies!
Lending her voice to an initiative to change the UK medicines regulator, the MHRA, Leah points out: ‘There are so many alternatives but people do not realise because doctors get paid to prescribe certain medicines such as antibiotics… I don’t really trust doctors. They give out everything and anything to people who don’t really know if they are taking something that will help them or not… People should have the choice to try other avenues when they are ill… Anything is better than keeping these companies in demand and in profit…
‘The British people deserve better, they are so dependent on these massive pharmaceutical companies and the MHRA keeps the system going and that’s not right. If people want to go and use specific treatments that are not licensed but are safe, they should have the rights and freedom of choice to do that without being dictated to by pharmaceutical companies.’
Leah supports a petition launched in partnership with the National Health Federation calling on Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, to change the structure of the MHRA. The aim of this exercise is, according to the Mail, to remove the influence of pharmaceutical companies, making it independent. Leah claims: ‘Big pharmaceutical corporations exert control over UK healthcare regulatory bodies, like the MHRA, which has Big Pharma directors on its board… As a result, many inexpensive but effective treatments, such as homeopathy, proteins and complementary medicines are overlooked or banned in favour of expensive, often ineffective drugs with dangerous side effects, that are highly profitable for the big corporations.’
And what is wrong about Leah’s arguments? They might seem fine to many who adore alternative medicine but, on closer inspection, they turn out to be misguided and fallacious.
Let’s begin from the start:
• Ronnie Wood is 69 and to me he looks not younger but older. Even if he were as fit as a fiddle, this could be the result of dozens of circumstances other than alternative medicine. Anecdotes are not evidence.
• A ‘natural alternative’ to conventional medicine is an illusion. If the treatments in question were effective, they would be part of medicine and thus stop being an alternative. (Some forms of chemotherapy are even derived from plants and are therefore ‘natural’ too.)
• Apricot seeds do not cure breast cancer, and to claim otherwise is not just fallacious but irresponsible, possibly even criminal. They contain cyanide and, in high doses, can easily kill the patient.
• Chemotherapy has a bad name with proponents of alternative medicine. This is mainly because they steadfastly insist on ignoring the evidence which clearly shows that it has saved thousands of lives.
• Homeopathy is neither plausible nor effective nor risk-free; giving it to kids who are seriously ill arguably borders on child abuse.
• Leah is correct: the right treatments can prolong the life of cancer patients. But in this context ‘right’ must mean ‘thoroughly tested and found to be efficacious’.
• The pharmaceutical industry has a lot of influence which we must keep in check. On the other hand, pharmaceuticals have saved or improved millions of lives. We should therefore keep a reasonable perspective and avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
• Freedom of choice is obviously a good thing. In publicly funded healthcare it must, however, be limited to the choice between treatments that demonstrably generate more good than harm.
• The National Health Federation is an international consumer-education, health-freedom organisation working to protect individuals’ rights to choose to consume healthy food, take supplements, and use alternative therapies without government restrictions. In other words, it is a lobby group for alternative medicine.
• Doctors do not get paid for prescribing drugs; the notion that they prescribe ‘ineffective treatments… in order to line the pockets of the big drug companies’ is as wrong as it is insulting.
• The MHRA may not be perfect, but I doubt that it is unduly influenced by Big Pharma or that directors of the pharmaceutical industry are sitting on its board.
• Homeopathy is not ‘banned’ by the MHRA. In fact, the MHRA is arguably protecting homeopathy by licensing homeopathic remedies without proof of efficacy.
• The notion that the medical profession is complicit in helping Big Pharma and medicines regulators to suppress efficacious alternative therapies is nothing more than a conspiracy theory.
Leah Wood is undoubtedly a passionate woman who probably means well. Her interview displays the stereotypical arguments of many proponents of alternative medicine in a near-exemplary fashion. These arguments usually start with a series of misunderstandings, followed by several untruths, and finally culminate in a full-blown conspiracy theory.
This is, I think, lamentably unproductive as it helps nobody, least of all the consumer. To me, it merely suggests that alternative therapies are useless in curing paranoia.
Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter, is the author of Homeopathy: The Undiluted Facts and the awardee of the John Maddox Prize 2015 for standing up for science. He blogs at edzardernst.com.