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Two key areas in particular demand consumer protection in particular: when large sums of money are involved and medicines.

When people’s lives or livelihoods are at risk the naïve need protection to save themselves from themselves.

For smaller things, when “it’s only money”, I can understand a lack of consumer protection. But not when lives and livelihoods are at risk.

Here’s a few loose ideas about approaches that could be taken. (Don’t take the first too seriously…)

I’ve left my comments intentionally open and without details out to encourage discussion.

Disclaimers

A while back, when I was writing about the “end of chiropractic” I was distracted with the idle thought that all remedies ought to come with disclaimers like those on cigarette packages.

Sample disclaimers for “alternative” remedies:

“This bottle contains only water.” (For high-dilution homeopathy solutions that use water as the solvent.)

“This remedy has been tested and found to offer no benefit.”

“There is no scientific evidence supporting the use of this treatment.”

Trouble is, even if the statements are perfectly correct the natural health industry would be up in arms. Of course, there’s money involved. (Much as some of their supporters like to point to the “evil money-greedy pharmaceutical companies, the same can be said of the “natural health” companies, too.)

This world is too PC allow to this happen. Regrettably.

The same should be applied to the likes of “conventional” cold remedies, too. One rule for all.

No false claims

A more sound approach would be to make it illegal to make false claims about medical products or treatments of any kind.

This should apply not just to bottled remedies, but such things on offer as “Chiropractic treatment as a “vaccine” for swine flu“, a kinesiology practitioner claiming to diagnose lactose intolerance in a young child (don’t laugh, I know of a case of exactly this) and so on.

This resembles parts of what I heard about the Labour Party policy that was being promoted prior to the last election, which was dropped. I’m not familiar with the details of what was on offer nor do I have time to backtrack and dig it all up. My interest here is with the basic principle, which seems perfectly sound and makes good sense from a consumer protection point of view.

I imagine that it’d be fairly hard to police. We’d quickly see the “usual” advertising tricks. Not stating things, only “implying” them. Clever wording to avoid making direct claims. And so on.

Even so, I think it’d be well worthwhile. It wouldn’t stop people selling things, just make them think twice before making claims about them that they can’t back.

Obligatory link to information

A more staid addition would be legislate that each bottle contain a short keyword that can be used to look up a description of the effectiveness of the remedy on a website.

I write ‘addition’, as this won’t prevent people making false claims so on it’s own it’s not a solution, but it may be a useful public education measure.

You will be familiar with the short keywords used in shortened links, like those at the end of each “tweet” in the “twitter chatter” section on the left portion of the main page of the sciblogs.co.nz website. (e.g. the ‘7sGeN0‘ portion of http://bit.ly/7sGeN0.) These are unique indices that are used to look up the actual entry. They’re compact and wouldn’t take much space on bottle labels or advertising material.

There is already a nacent (if abortive) website of this kind within New Zealand and there will be international counterparts. This website now looks defunct to my eyes, with the last entries from 2006 when the data was taken from the University of Otago effort.

One quibble I have with this website is that the “scores” could be better explained and that overall these sorts of efforts would do well to hire a science communicator!

Discussion

There’s space for your thoughts below. Go for it. (You’re not that passive are you?!)


Other posts with a health/medicine theme on Code for life:

NZ biotech, Living Cell Technologies, wins research deal from US giant

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”

The End of Chiropractic?

Neti pots now validated as sound science?

The chiropractor really should stick to bones

Genetic tests and personalised medicine

Autistic children and blood mercury levels

What the chiropractor said

Metagenomics-finding organisms from their genomes

Medical remedies-burden of proof lies with seller