Wednesday 17 July 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'It's time to expose the quacks and the frauds'

Proposal: Kate O'Connell at the launch of the Treatment of Cancer (Advertisements) Bill last month. Photo: Andres Poveda
Proposal: Kate O'Connell at the launch of the Treatment of Cancer (Advertisements) Bill last month. Photo: Andres Poveda
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

If there's one thing you can say about the Irish, it's that we're not short of strong opinions.

Those opinions may be well thought out and considered.

Or they may simply be lunatic prejudices. Or they may sometimes be a combination of both.

But the problem with having strong opinions is that there is always an exception to the rule.

For example, I'm of the firm belief that the State, and whatever government of the day happens to be in charge, should always stay out of the way of people's freely made choices.

Yes, my strong libertarian inclination is to try to avoid any interactions with officialdom wherever possible and I expect the same courtesy in return.

In other words, we're grown-ups, we make our own choices and if those choices happen to be idiotic, or simply a mistake, then it's up to us to deal with it.

We don't need protection from ourselves because, if anything, we need protection from meddling politicians and quangos who want to dictate how we live our lives.

But that strong opinion crumbles, for example, in the face of the proliferation of gambling advertising and the ease with which people can now blow all their wages in a few minutes on their phone.

Similarly, the idea of advertising miracle cures for cancer falls under the category.

We all want to be allowed to exist without the Government banning things they don't like. However, that is predicated upon the idea that we are all of sound mind and body and don't need to have our hands held by some TD.

Under normal circumstances, any attempt by a politician to bring in strict guidelines on the way people conduct their own health regimen would be anathema to any free-thinking person.

But as Kate O'Connell's 'anti-quack' proposals, or to give it its full title, 'The Treatment of Cancer (Advertisements) Bill', which she introduced just before Christmas reminds us, when you're suffering from the most dreaded disease of them all, it's hard to maintain either a sound mind or a sound body.

Ireland has one of the highest rates of cancer in the Western world and it is now estimated that half of us will face one form of the disease or another at some stage in our life.

So it's probably no coincidence that Ireland is a hotbed of cranks, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen who peddle a variety of obviously bogus cures.

O'Connell's Bill would go after those who advertise their miracle cures and the punishments would involve fines and, in extreme cases, jail time.

That seems rather draconian on the face of it.

After all, this is a country with a long tradition of 'folk cures' and, of course, you could argue that the traditional Irish response to illness - to say a prayer for the patient - is also a form of, literally, a miracle cure.

But the problem isn't so much with people merely changing their diet, it's changing their diet without telling their doctor, or simply abandoning conventional medicine altogether.

As Brian Bird, a consultant oncologist from Cork has pointed out: "An estimated 30pc of patient are taking supplements and herbs which they don't disclose to their medical team - and that stuff is bloody dangerous."

It's easy to laugh at the idea of crystals, or bio-energy healing, or chakra realignment, or any of the nonsensical quackery which passes for natural medicine in this field. Frankly, half the stuff is so demented that even Noel Edmonds would raise an eyebrow.

But you can only laugh when you're not the one in agony.

Any of us who have seen friends and loved ones slowly wither in pain and die an awful death from cancer can also understand that desperate desire to try something, anything, when conventional treatments don't seem to be working.

When that desire to explore all avenues, even the non-conventional ones, is then exploited and used to urge someone to give up their regular treatment to instead, for instance, consume bicarbonate of soda to 'alkalise' the body, then the patient is, as Bird says, "committing suicide".

Yale Medical School released data two years ago which pointed out that people who rely on alternative therapies have a far higher mortality rate than those who stuck with conventional medicine.

That's all very well and good, but who cares about data when you're staring death in the face?

We are all exploited all the time. Advertising exploits our desires, magazines exploit our insecurities, politicians exploit our fears and social media exploits our hubris.

But these are willingly entered into by the rest of us, and are fundamentally harmless. However, when you start exploiting someone's justifiable fear of their own impending death by insisting that they drop their regular, scientific treatment, then you're guilty of an especially egregious offence against your fellow man.

Apart from anything else, it surely qualifies as some form of depraved indifference, as well as fraud.

Of course, numerous adherents of this chicanery have said this is another attack on individual rights by the vested interests of Big Pharma.

It's really not. I'd be the first to call it out if I thought it was.

If handled appropriately - and that's where the big 'if' enters the equation - this Bill would at least put the brakes on the cynics and headcases who think waving a crystal is better than a dose of chemo.

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