Letter by Clifford G. Miller

5 Oct 2007

The following is the text of an emailed letter submitted today to the Daily Mail newspaper, London.  Other emailed letters were sent to journalists in other papers who published similar stories.

Feel free to circulate it.

Dear Sirs,

Re: Herb cures that 'do you more harm than good' | Jenny Hope - Daily Mail - 4th October 2007

I write out of concern for what I read today in this story.

As a lawyer with a background as a trained scientist I have been directly involved with the drug industry in relation to herbal medicines.  In my professional work I have met and dealt with medical and scientific professionals on different occasions who are involved in pharmaceutical research and the commercialisation of herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies and who recognise and in some cases are in awe at the efficacy of herbal medicines and the skills of herbalists. 

The pharmaceutical industry have been trawling the world to snap up the secrets to numerous herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies in an attempt to turn them into conventional pill and bottled patented remedies.  A notable example among many doing this is Phytopharm plc.  And only yesterday in the Daily Mail is an example of one outcome "Anti-cancer pill made of wine, rice and berries". 

At the same time as the pharmaceutical industry are doing that some elements attack traditional herbalists, nutritionalists and others.  No one is going to pay large amounts of money for an expensive patented medicine when they can treat themselves, without the risk of serious side effects, with safe and effective plant based medicines proven over years, sometimes centuries, of use.

Even assuming the medical paper reported in your story is reliable (and that cannot be assumed about any medical paper) the suggestion that three randomised and very limited clinical trials (RCTs) about just three specific treatments tell us anything about the efficacy of "individualised herbal remedies" or herbal medicines in general is just not scientific.  Yet these "experts" appear from the quotes in the media today, to be using that as an all-out attack on herbal medicines.  This is precisely at the time the MHRA and the EU are considering regulation of herbal and other natural remedies.

Elsewhere today authors Dr Peter Canter and Professor Edzard Ernst from the Peninsula Medical School at the University of Exeter are quoted as calling for the sale of herbal medicines to be banned unless evidence of their efficacy can be shown.

This is just laughable when put into context.  If conventional medical doctors had to stop using all the treatments they do unless proven by randomised clinical trial, medicine as we know it would shut down.  So Ernst is pulling one over everyone by claiming that all herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies have to be proven by RCTs.

Professor Edzard Ernst of the very same Peninsula Medical School at the University of Exeter whose "scientists" were responsible for the paper also wrote an accompanying editorial to the paper. He claims his new field (dubbed "phytotherapy") is being confused with traditional herbal medicine and OTC remedies, which he claims "to date have no basis in science". He states "phytotherapy, which represents the scientific face of herbalism, has considerable potential to benefit patients".

As you can appreciate, that is a contradictory position for Ernst.  The only reason he can create this new field of "phytotherapy" is because herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies are known to work even though they are not written up and reported in the medical literature.

It is farcical of the "researchers" to suggest that because no one has paid for formal research into herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies that there is no evidence of efficacy.  There are large numbers of known and proven nutritional and other natural remedies which have not been formally researched and written up for publication in medical or scientific journals.  No pharmaceutical company is going to fund research to prove a remedy anyone can knock up in their kitchen at minimal cost is safe and effective.

Drug companies control the evidence base in medical research.  Two thirds of so-called "research" is funded by the drug industry.  And the medical profession, with considerable drug company influence, has adopted a demonstrably nonsensical evidence base.  This favours expensive published research which mainly only drug companies can afford to carry out.  No one is carrying out needed research to demonstrate the efficacy of simple nutritional and other natural remedies on the scale needed. I am confident the NHS could save billions by investing in research into herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies to prove them safe and effective in the literature.

I have learnt enough to know there are many safe effective herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies which we are all being denied because of the power of the pharmaceutical industry in the promotion of medicines of sometimes dubious efficacy.  And if you want proof of that, consider this.  On 8th December 2003 Dr Allen Roses of GlaxoSmithKline was quoted by Science Editor Steve Connor of The Independent newspaper as saying at a scientific meeting in London where Dr Roses cited figures on how well different classes of drugs work in real patients:-

"The vast majority of drugs - more than 90 per cent - only work in 30 or 50 per cent of the people," Dr Roses said. "I wouldn't say that most drugs don't work. I would say that most drugs work in 30 to 50 per cent of people. Drugs out there on the market work, but they don't work in everybody."
Connor’s story went on to say:-
“It is an open secret within the drugs industry that most of its products are ineffective in most patients but this is the first time that such a senior drugs boss has gone public. His comments come days after it emerged that the NHS drugs bill has soared by nearly 50 per cent in three years, rising by £2.3bn a year to an annual cost to the taxpayer of £7.2bn.”
Glaxo chief: Our drugs do not work on most patients   By Steve Connor, Science Editor 08 December 2003
And then we need to look at the medical profession itself - with this example from the BMJ:-
Why do doctors use treatments that do not work? Jenny Doust, Chris Del Mar, BMJ. 2004 February 28; 328(7438): 474–475.
It is well-known in research circles not to rely on author's opinions and particularly not what appears in the discussion or conclusions sections.  Regrettably, publicity seeking authors who might be chasing down their next research grant sometimes manage to get news coverage for their work by issuing news releases containing inflammatory quotes which they anticipate will get the attention of the media. 

Whilst these "researchers" have failed to demonstrate that herbal, nutritional and other natural remedies are generally ineffective what they have done is demonstrated how lacking in science the opinions of authors or medical papers can be. 


Clifford G. Miller,
50 Burnhill Road, Beckenham, Kent BR3 3LA
Tel: + 44 (0) 20 8663 0044