Let’s ask the dealers if their stuff is good: U.K. committee on TCM

Hunt is at it again. More quackery into NHS.

First it was homeopathy: U.K. Health Secretary Hunt: Needs to buy a clue. Now this…

British might integrate TCM into UK health service.

The British government says it is looking into integrating traditional Chinese medicine into the UK’s national health service. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt says if there is enough evidence to prove herbal medicines would benefit patients, they could be made available on the NHS and used alongside western medicines. A group of experts has now been tasked to look at the possibility.

The Department of Health has now started an independent Herbal Practioners and Medicines Working Group – made up of senior figures in the industry – to investigate the potential use of Traditional Chinese Medicines. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt says NHS money wont be spent on Chinese medicines unless they are backed up by scientific evidence.

Dr Michael Dixon is one of the experts taking part in the working group – and says the aims are two fold.

“We need to make sure that the practitioners are safe, regulated and that the public know that they are. And also that the medicines that they are able to get are equally safe. If we don’t get that then there’s a real risk we might lose herbal medicine in this country.”

So a committee of these herbal practioners are going to decide whether herbal meds are safe to use in the health system? WHY BOTHER? It’s completely biased.

Wow, is this ridiculous! Lots of money going down the drain fiddling about with tooth fairy medicine.

  20 comments for “Let’s ask the dealers if their stuff is good: U.K. committee on TCM

  1. kompani101
    May 23, 2014 at 3:26 PM

    The current Conservative Government is systematically asset stripping the NHS so that it can be continued to be sold off to large corporations, similar to the American private health care system (and we all know how expensive that is to feed huge profits for shareholders and CEO’s). Many former MP’s are now directors of these companies and many current MP’s receive financial backing by the same companies. What will be left are the scraps and least profitable services for the poor. Using woo medicine fits into this scheme as it will be very cheap and full of bullsh*t.

  2. Les Anwyl
    May 23, 2014 at 9:32 PM

    ‘Let’s ask the dealers if their stuff is good’… isn’t that exactly what happens with pharmaceuticals? Your objection to the trials is based on bias of the committee.

    Do you believe that pharmaceutical companies who have invested millions in developing drugs have no bias when carrying out their trials?

    Many of them even keep their results secret to disguise dangerous side effects or ineffectiveness:

    Who would you propose that a working group to assess herbal medicine be comprised of? Should the committee be made up of Pharmaceutical industry experts (no vested interest there..), or should it be made up of people from unrelated fields (should we have geologists and climatologists assess herbal medicines?)

    You seem determined to dismiss herbal medicine as magic plants and woo woo.

  3. May 23, 2014 at 10:09 PM

    I won’t deny that Big Pharma screws up. That is well known. However, pushing unregulated, mostly untested herbals is NOT the answer, it’s probably more dangerous.

    I’m sorry, have you not been following the site for long?…

  4. Les Anwyl
    May 23, 2014 at 10:50 PM

    No, I have only just recently discovered your illuminating and interesting site. Thankyou.

    Whilst I consider myself to have a healthy scepticism (my favourite book is Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World), I am open to possibilities which fall outside current mainstream understandings.

    Consequently I would welcome scientific investigation of modalities which appear to have been successful even though they have no basis in current scientific belief.

    I saw nothing in the article which suggested ‘pushing unregulated, mostly untested herbals’, rather it seemed to be about conducting research to ensure that herbals could be evaluated, tested and regulated.

  5. May 24, 2014 at 2:20 AM

    There must be many reputable medical, academic and other independent researchers who can carry out these studies. Dr Dixon, named in the CNTV article as one of the experts taking part, has been criticized in the past for “lobbying for” alternative medicine.


    The other person mentioned, Professor Ke, is a purveyor of TCM.

    Steven Novella has a primer on TCM at Science-Based Medicine:


  6. James G
    May 24, 2014 at 4:28 AM

    The expense can’t really be avoided since, unlike in drug trials, there is no large company to champion any of these treatments. But as long as herbal remedies share the same burden of proof as pharmaceuticals, I have no problem with this; I’d even go so far as to say this is a good thing, provided any results are shared whether they work or not. I can’t imagine tiger penis making me more virile, but if they can prove it does in a substantial double blind trial, and that it does so safely, they have my blessing.

    Or they would if demand for tiger penis wasn’t driving that species towards extinction, along with dozens of other animals whose parts are used in TCM. That is a huge issue with TCM that often seems to be forgotten. It is a system of treatment that fails to provide enough treatment for everyone, and as treatment sources are driven extinct ultimately provides treatment for no one, or poorer treatment as alternatives are found.

  7. Tom
    May 24, 2014 at 7:29 AM

    Top UK Civil Servants are quite used to dealing with the weird ideas of Ministers and will politely consign this one to the “do not disturb” file

  8. les Anwyl
    May 24, 2014 at 8:41 AM

    There is much more to TCM than Tiger penis for virility, just as there is more to modern medicine than Viagra.
    The ‘huge issue’ with TCM failing to provide enough treatment for everyone is also incorrect, as TCM was developed over periods of scarcity and so often depended on treatments which were readily available and cheap (local foods, herbs, exercise, massage and acupuncture). The abhorrent tiger dick business would be analogous to botox, which I presume is also not available to everyone on the basis of scarcity/ expense.

    I am not trying to defend all of TCM and believe that there are many, many doubtful treatments and preparations. But to dismiss the whole field is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

    I understand that concepts such as Chi or life energy and shen or spirit have no basis in modern science, but does science understand how inanimate matter becomes life, and how life becomes consciousness? There are many things beyond our current understanding. Perhaps science will one day identify a life force and the meridians that it follows through a living being. Perhaps future medical systems will be able to balance and nurture life energy to restore and maintain health, rather than use synthetic substances to cure disease.

    To dismiss these concepts as woo woo whilst ridiculing evaluation of systems based on them, and presume that we have nothing to learn from other civilisations (often backed by thousands of years of experimentation and observation), smacks of cultural bias and hubris.

  9. Peter Robinson
    May 24, 2014 at 9:21 AM

    Forwarded this story to Andy Lewis at Quackometer blog. Here is his response:

    ‘Hi there. I am not sure the reports are correct. The working group is set up to look at how to regulate herbal medicines now the EU directives have essentially closed off access to unlicensed preparations. There is a rift between herbalists who want statutory regulation and those that want just a government imprimatur and then to be left alone to flog what they like. There may be a secondary impact if statutory regulated in that access to NHS meds may be easier. But that is not a foregone conclusion.’

    So, may not be as bad as at first sight, but definitely worth keeping an eye on.

  10. May 24, 2014 at 9:36 AM

    Thanks for the clarification. You can’t go by what’s in the media.

  11. Rich
    May 24, 2014 at 5:33 PM

    “…but does science understand how inanimate matter becomes life..?”

    It knows a fair bit about it, yes. Try this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004y29f

  12. les Anwyl
    May 25, 2014 at 12:37 AM

    @ Rich: Thanks for the link, I found it interesting, though I am familiar with much of the material. Correct me if I’m wrong but it seemed to deal mostly with the preconditions of life, the formation of organic compounds and the early evolution of cells, which we do know a fair bit about.

    The closest the discussion comes to actually answering the question of how matter becomes living was when Dawkins speculated: ‘a molecule arose which had the property of making copies of itself’.
    This may be the ‘what’ of abiogenesis, but it is not the ‘How’
    When pressed on the issue at about 17 mins by the host: ‘how does the first replicator replicate ?’,
    Dawkins answers: ‘That’s exactly what we don’t know’.

  13. James G
    May 25, 2014 at 5:29 AM

    I think it is reasonable to be somewhat dismissive of these traditions for a couple of reasons – their track records and their failure to observe, experiment, and evolve.

    In terms of track records, I think the biggest argument against *any* traditional medicine, western, eastern, or new world, is ‘Where was it 200 years ago?’ Illnesses like heart disease, cancer, and juvenile diabetes were almost always fatal, and even common problems like bacterial infections were quite dangerous. Infant mortality was hundreds of times higher than it is now. Traditional treatments had millennia to demonstrate efficacy, and they largely failed. We’ve had contact with China for hundreds of years now, well before the advent of modern medicine. If traditional Chinese medicine possessed effective remedies for any of the killers and cripplers that stalked our 18th century ancestors, I’m sure they would have made their way into western medicine. Perhaps some of them (opium?) did.

    As has been noted, we have centuries of experience regarding traditional medicine’s performance, but most of it hasn’t been good. Here in the west, we’ve discarded blood-letting, the four humours, blaming (and burning) witches, and almost all of the rest of it because it didn’t work. The few things that did, like opiates, digitalis, quinine, and colchicine, we’ve carried forward into modern medicine, but even they have largely been superseded by more effective and safer replacements. Sixty years ago leukemia was always fatal. Today most leukemias have good remission rates, and decent cure rates. Modern medicine accomplished that. Traditional medicine had a zero remission or cure rate. I think if you look at most any illness through this lens of ‘then versus now’ you will find similar outcomes.

    Traditional medicines fail when we grade them on observation, experimentation, and evolution. Many of the texts and treatments they use were first enumerated hundreds or thousands of years ago. Many traditions STILL prescribe remedies that incorporate lead, arsenic, and mercury, even though these elements are harmful even in tiny amounts. When practitioners are made aware of the damage these metals cause, some turn a blind eye to it and continue to harm their patients with heavy metals. The traditions of China and India have had thousands of years to recognize the harm these materials exert, and the same number of years to change, and yet they fail to do so.

    They are reluctant to experiment. When animals like tigers, rhinos, and pangolins are being driven into extinction, they continue to be consumed after substitutes have been endorsed. I can understand that, because I find myself asking, if pig bones are a substitute for tiger bones, why weren’t they using pig bones in the first place? Why go to the trouble of killing a tiger instead of the local pig? How could they possibly be equivalent?

    Traditional medicine places far too much emphasis on tradition, and not nearly enough on evidence. They lack the ability or willingness to discriminate between treatments that work and those that don’t. If they had that ability, there wouldn’t be such an tiny ratio between treatments that work, and those that don’t. While there may be effective treatments to be found there, it is more a matter of luck than it is actual insight into disease.

    The root of the problem is dogma and faith. Most, if not all, traditional medicines are hopelessly intertwined with religion. TCM is wrapped up with a lot of Taoism, and Taoism is a matter of faith. Dogma and faith poison innovation and observation. Instead of statistics determining the impact of a treatment, orthodoxy does.

    Medicine is a science, and the scientific method is why modern medicine has been so much more successful than any sort of traditional system of healing – not twice as successful, or even ten times. If you evaluate success by the number of measurably useful treatments, it is thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of times more successful. There are more productive avenues of exploration than the ancient cogitations of prophets, seers, and alchemists. I don’t expect to find a baby in that bathwater.






  14. Bill T.
    May 27, 2014 at 11:18 AM

    There are documented, advertised, and also deliberatly downplayed adverse effects of many compounds out of the phamaceutical industry. However, they ARE required to undergo extensive (hence expensive) testing to at least try to determine efficacy and toxicity.

    How are the untested, unsupported (no, counterintuitively, anecdotes are not support) treatments to be taken as a superior choice? Pharmaceutical companies routinely review and investigate traditional practices for hints of sources for new treatments which are then tested, again, to determine if the efficacy outweighs harm.

    The case of a few years ago of the diet “tea” that women were told was safe, since it was all natural, was linked to people dying comes to mind.

  15. Les Anwyl
    May 28, 2014 at 4:49 AM

    True, they are required to undergo extensive testing. Whether or not this process is working is doubtful after publication of such books as ‘Bad Pharma: how drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients’ by Ben Goldacre. Goldacre argues in the book that “the whole edifice of medicine is broken,” because the evidence on which it is based is systematically distorted by the pharmaceutical industry.

    But no matter, it is the best way that we have of ascertaining the effectiveness of medicines.

    Which is why a governmental initiative to:”make sure that the practitioners are safe, regulated and that the public know that they are. And also that the medicines that they are able to get are equally safe”… is probably not a bad idea, but it is met with ridicule on this site, as is any attempt to ascertain TCM or CAM’s safety or effectiveness.

    So far on this and another thread, the reasons given have been: ‘it doesn’t work’ (unsubstantiated opinion); ‘if it worked we wouldn’t need any better medicines'(?); wealthy chinese don’t use it (wrong, and irrelevant); ‘they unnecessarily kill animals’ (not an essential part of TCM, and western medicine can claim no moral superiority when it comes to treatment of animals); ‘effective substances can be synthesised in a lab’ (true, but they can also be grown in a garden and found in nature). The most recurrent theme in these comments is the supposition that advocates suggest that TCM is superior and should replace western medicine. I see no evidence to support this; even the chinese see it as a complement to western therapies.

    As for the deadly diet tea; like western pharmaceuticals, ‘let the buyer beware’.
    Over twenty thousand people died in the US alone in 2010 as a result of prescription drugs.

    Maybe the evaluation of complementary and alternative therapies is not such a ridiculous idea.

  16. Les Anwyl
    May 28, 2014 at 7:03 AM

    Fair call, you raise some excellent points, which I totally agree with. Clearly traditional medicines had not a clue when it came to the causes and treatments of many illnesses like the ones mentioned. I can also guarantee that I would not seek an acupuncturist for treatment of trauma. There is no question about the superiority of western medicine.
    (though I would question your ratio of ‘infant mortality hundreds of times higher than it is now’; at 5.2 per thousand for the USA in 2014 two hundred times would be more than 100% mortality).

    However your argument that ‘effective remedies would have made their way in to western medicine’ is not entirely convincing. History is full of examples of empires which failed to adopt ideas or technologies of value from the peoples they conquered. I don’t doubt the Spanish could have learned a great deal from the Incas about engineering, agriculture, food technology and land management, but that they were so enamoured with their own superiority that they failed to evaluate or recognise anything of value 😉

    Quite right too, about toxic preparations. I believe that Qin Shi Huang, China’s most famous emperor died from mercury poisoning prescribed by his physicians. Also the reluctance to use substitutes. Perhaps a different attitude to the treatment of animals (maybe a cruel indifference to their suffering) meant that if you could afford tiger bones (or penises) why would you use pigs? Can’t boast to your peers that your virility is due to consuming pig dicks.

    ‘Too much emphasis on tradition’, true too, perhaps as a result of cultural hubris. One of the old names for China (Zongguou) means ‘Middle Kingdom’, a reference to the belief that China was not only the centre of civilisation but between heaven and earth. It has been suggested that in the 1400’s a large Chinese navy explored much of the world and concluded that there was nothing of interest or use outside of China, leading to a long period of isolationism. Perhaps if they had come across western medicine they would have dismissed it on the grounds that it had no knowledge of vital energy or chi.

    I would like to question your assessment that ‘the ratio of effective to ineffective treatments was tiny’ (where’s the data?) and successful treatments were a matter of luck; I think it would be fair to assume that people were not completely stupid and more effective treatments and practitioners would be in greater demand than useless or dangerous ones. And you don’t need insight into disease to be able to tell when a particular herb causes salivation, aids digestion and improves oral health.

    True your point about Dogma. Any dogma.

    Modern medicine tens of thousands of times more effective? Are you a statistician or something? (lies, damned lies and statistics).

    Your point about more productive avenues of exploration is probably the best argument put forward so far against evaluation of TCM. I suspect you are right, but ultimately this is speculation.

    I feel I should disclose my interest in this matter as an enthusiast of ‘nonsense energy therapies’ (Tai chi and Chi kung) which are based on and are an integral part of TCM. My personal experience has proven to me that this practicing this form of light but intense exercise combined with deep breathing whilst focussing the mind on imaginary energy (maybe the ancients knew more about placebo than we give them credit for) has for myself and many others improved all areas of physical and mental well being and protected me from disease of all kinds well into middle age. If some of the people I have seen in China are any indication, these benefits will increase well in to old age. But don’t just take my word for it, there is an abundance of clinical studies to prove it:


    Like you, I don’t expect to find a baby in the bathwater of the ancient cogitations of prophets, seers and alchemists, but you never know, for ‘ There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

  17. May 28, 2014 at 9:38 AM

    ” ‘ There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’”

    I really really hate that line. It’s insulting. People who investigate nature know full well that we don’t know lots of stuff but to suggest that we are closed-minded is unfair and condescending. TCM does not stand up to results of RCT tested pharmaceuticals for the range of diseases we can treat today. The current trend is to treat TCM as “ancient” “mystical” “natural”, all fallacies.

    I’m dumbfounded by the anecdotal claim that the energy therapies have “protected you against disease”. I can easily see correlation, not causation in this article. There is nothing wrong with some herbs, meditation, massage, etc. The problem is that there are claims that exceed the evidence, that TCM is a substitute for modern meds. It most certainly is not.

  18. Les Anwyl
    May 29, 2014 at 2:08 AM

    My apologies if I have insulted you, it wasn’t my intention. I was trying to respond in a light hearted way to what I took to be a light hearted shot at TCM which implied that it is merely: ‘ the ancient cogitations of prophets, seers and alchemists’. Since you brought it up, I hope you don’t find it unfair and condescending, but I would suggest that making absolute statements like ‘TCM does not work’, and ridiculing suggestions to investigate whether or not it does, suggests close mindedness, especially if your assessment of it is based on bear bile, ‘magic herbs and nonsense energy therapies’.

    I appreciate that my claim of benefit from one aspect of TCM only implies correlation and doesn’t prove causation, but correlation is still relevant as it can indicate predictive relationships (such as :’people who regularly practice Tai chi are less likely to suffer from arthritis, stress, obesity’ etc etc). I also understand that my claim is anecdotal which is why I prefaced it with ‘proven to me’, and followed it with reference to clinical trials.

    I’m pleased to hear that you think ‘there is nothing is wrong with herbs, meditation, massage etc’ as these are cornerstones of the wholistic system of TCM. I must have misinterpreted your comment that TCM was ‘worthless and dangerous’.

    The point about: ‘claims that..TCM is a substitute for modern meds’ keeps coming up even though I have responded to it several times already. I must be missing something. Could you please indicate where anybody is or has claimed that TCM is a substitute for modern meds? My interest in TCM has spanned several decades and I have yet to encounter that claim. Even in china.

  19. May 29, 2014 at 8:38 AM

    I have seen the push in several countries to include TCM in mainstream health care often with naturopathy (interchangable?) to help solve the problem of the lack of primary health care doctors for low income people, including in China. Having not heard of TCM as a mainstream treatment until the past 10 years of so (maybe because I haven’t been looking), it certainly appears to be growing in popularity not in little part due to the practitioners themselves and government officials who think it’s a nifty fix for a problem. Thus, the impression that it’s something wonderful that we should be incorporating as “new”. From covering so many stories on alt meds, I have no doubt that many people WILL substitute TCM for conventional meds and practitioners will tout their treatments as alternatives for treatment of serious diseases.


  20. Les Anwyl
    May 30, 2014 at 9:59 AM

    Thanks for clarifying that important point; the push is to ‘include TCM in mainstream health care’.
    As far as we know, its not being promoted as a replacement or substitute.

    The lack of primary health care doctors for people of low income people is scandalous. To try to promote TCM as a substitute may well be just a cynical exercise in damage control. I suspect that things aren’t going to change any time soon, as there is no money or votes in health care for the poor. They just can’t pay for their meds.

    This is hardly a new situation. You made inference earlier that TCM was more commonly used by Chinese of low income. I propose that many of the effective treatments were ones refined and practiced by China’s ‘barefoot doctors’. I guarantee that throughout Chinese history the common folk were not gorging themselves on tiger penis, drinking tiger bone wine and being poisoned with mercury by quack physicians like the emperors were. They were using locally available herbs and fungi, massage, chi kung, kung fu and acupuncture. To suppose that they had no idea of what worked and what didn’t is unreasonable and condescending. As far as I know, famine was much more of a killer than epidemics, chronic disease or dangerous medicines.

    As I see as one of the primary differences between good TCM (and CAMs in general) and western medicine is that western medicine focusses primarily on cures for disease and treatment of symptoms whereas TCM and CAMs take a wholistic approach which focusses on identifying and dealing with underlying causes of disease and preventing illness. There is need for both (dare I say like ‘yin and yang’?)
    Given that no one is going to be paying for meds or doctors for the poor anytime soon, wouldn’t a preventative approach be a good one to take? And given that preventable diseases are on the ascendance in the west, wouldn’t that make sense for everybody?

    I didn’t know that TCM was being perceived in the US as something new.
    That would be because Australia (where I’m from) has had an interest and history with it for at least thirty years, due at least partly to factors like multiculturalism and geography.
    Suddenly in the early eighties it was like a craze; it seemed that everybody was kung fu fighting, exchanging acupressure points for headache, seasickness and period pain and quoting cryptic lines from the I ching (‘Goat butts head against hedge, and horns become entangled’ was one of my faves). No end of ‘Confucius says’ jokes. A half decent Tai Chi instructor could have numerous classes around Sydney with thirty or so students each at ten bucks a lesson, and ladies would swoon at the mere suggestion of a Chinese foot massage… ah, those were the days, but I digress…
    Anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of these therapies was rampant (and not a bear bile or tiger bone in sight). Interest grew and by the mid eighties colleges for TCM sprang up. By the late eighties a new crop of Australian acupuncturists were starting their practices. Serious courses took a minimum of four years full time study (five years if you included herbalism) and 600 hours of supervised clinical practice . The courses were thorough and comprehensive, incorporating the theory of Chinese medicine, the study of its core texts and also incorporating Western medical sciences such as biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, and clinical medicine. For the first time in Australia, smart, well educated english speaking acupuncturists were readily available. Anecdotal reports of effectiveness spread like wildfire, as did the demand for TCM.

    This is where it got really interesting. The Australian Medical Association decided it needed to get in on the action and decided there might be something in it. They endorsed (and still do) ‘Medical Acupuncture’. This is where a qualified GP does a short course in acupuncture (originally it could be completed in a weekend) and is then considered competent to practice acupuncture as a complementary therapy. They also endorse ‘dry needling’ where chiropractors, myotherapists and physiotherapists insert needles in the superficial layers of myofascia as an adjunct to their professional level therapies. 16 hours instruction is considered sufficient.


    Today Monash university offers courses in ‘Medical Acupuncture’ and Dry needling and states on its website:’many of the more difficult patients in the western sense do in fact fit more simply into the TCM patterns and that it is in these patients that TCM is of immense value.”


    Didn’t someone make the argument earlier that if TCM had anything of value western medicine would have adopted it?

    Anway, go figure. The AMA does not endorse properly trained acupuncturists but endorses GP’s and physios sticking needles in people and calling it ‘Medical Acupuncture’.
    Anecdotal evidence suggests that much of the ‘acupuncture’ provided by GP’s and Physios is worthless or harmful.
    Let the buyer beware. I wonder if big pharma did trials on the effectiveness of acupuncture if they would use these practitioners in their studies? They are after all the only ones officially endorsed to administer it.

    Meanwhile, the demand for acupuncture (from acupuncturists that is, not GP’s) in Australia has continued to rise (pretty sure the GP’s acupuncture is not in big demand). Health funds have been forced to include it to remain competitive. It would be hard to find many towns in Australia that do not have at least one practice, and many patients perceive that they derive benefit from it. People love their anecdotal evidence.

    At least we won’t have to pay for their meds.

    Thanks for your links to numerous articles from your excellent site where you expose examples of dangerous and ineffective medicines and practices.

    One of my favourites which wasn’t included was:


    I was wondering why the comments were so quickly closed.

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