The Alternative Medicine Racket: How the Feds Fund Quacks

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The NIH has spent $5.5 billion investigating a wide variety of unconventional medical practices from around the world, such as shark cartilage for cancer, St. John's Wort for depression and acupuncture for pain. Yuriko Nakao/Reuters

This article first appeared on Reason.com.

Behind the dubious medical claims of Dr. Mehmet Oz and Deepak Chopra is a decades-long strategy to promote alternative medicine to the American public.

Twenty-three years ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began to investigate a wide variety of unconventional medical practices from around the world. Five-and-a-half billion dollars later, the NIH has found no cures for disease. But it has succeeded in bringing every kind of quackery—from faith healing to homeopathy—out of the shadows and into the heart of the American medical establishment.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), a part of the NIH, is largely the brainchild of a single person. In the 1980s, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was convinced that bee pollen extract cured his hay fever. As the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing NIH funding, Harkin set aside $2 million to establish the NCCIH's forerunner, the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM). Harkin did not respond to multiple requests to participate in this story.

The OAM's stated mission was to investigate the medical value of alternative therapies. Despite its minuscule budget, its mandate was massive. Almost any kind of unusual therapy could be considered "alternative," spanning dozens of widely differing cultural traditions and historical eras. Everything from homeopathic remedies for arthritis to acupuncture for back pain to remote prayer for HIV/AIDS to coffee enemas for fighting cancer was in its purview.

Another looming challenge was bridging the ravine between the scientific establishment and the heterodox community of alternative medicine practitioners.

The OAM's first director, Dr. Joseph Jacobs, seemed ideally suited to this task, as he belonged to both worlds. The son of a Mohawk mother and a part-Cherokee father, Jacobs was raised on the Kahnawake Mohawk Reservation and had spent a lifetime navigating different cultures. As he recounts in his lively memoir, Mohawks on the Nile: Journey of the Warrior Spirit, Jacobs used traditional Mohawk remedies long before earning degrees from Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Yale Medical School.

But Jacobs's skill at multicultural maneuvering was no match for the OAM's politicized advisory council. The OAM's charter mandated that its 18-member advisory council be heavily weighted to favor experts and practitioners of alternative medicine. As a result, many on the council were unfamiliar with the rigors of scientific research.

"Many things that seem to be effective don't stand up to scientific research, but they still cure people," Representative Berkley Bedell (D-Iowa) told the Journal of the American Medical Association, shortly after his appointment to the advisory council by Harkin in 1992. "If that's the case, then I hate to think we may squelch something by insisting it has to go through scientific investigation."

Others had incentives to validate alternative therapies that were at odds with the OAM's stated mission of impartiality and objectivity. An original member of the advisory council, Deepak Chopra benefited from the imprimatur of the NIH years before Oprah Winfrey catapulted the New Age healer to national stardom. Four members of the council personally selected by Harkin had scant medical training yet were vocal advocates for alternative medicine.

Trapped in a bureaucracy of politics and magical thinking, the science-minded Jacobs didn't last long. "Harkin and his cronies probably wanted somebody else," he tells Reason TV. "But they wanted me to do their bidding. And I really couldn't do that."

Under pressure to validate dubious treatments without scientific evidence, Jacobs resigned after only two years on the job. "I prefer the ticks of Connecticut to the politics of Washington," he declared to The New York Times at the time of his departure.

With Jacobs out of the picture, the advisory council was free to pursue its own vision of the future of American medicine. Over the objections of NIH Director Harold Varmus, Harkin elevated the Office of Alternative Medicine to the status of a "national center." Rechristened as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), it enjoyed independent control of a skyrocketing budget.

By 2010, total yearly spending at the NIH on alternative medicine reached $521 million. The bloated budget funded long-term studies of dozens of remedies, such as shark cartilage for cancer, St. John's Wort for depression and acupuncture for pain.

At the time, a few treatments seemed to hold reasonable promise. Many others had no plausible biological mechanism behind their hoped-for effects and would have to violate fundamental laws of physics in order to work. Today, after billions spent investigating alternative treatments, no cures have been found.

Perhaps NCCIH's most significant accomplishment has been to crack open the doors of the American medical establishment, a long sought-after goal of many alternative practitioners. The University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine offers patients homeopathy. Even though NCCIH's own studies suggest that Reiki is useless, it hasn't stopped Dr. Oz from introducing the "energy medicine" to a new generation of surgeons at Columbia University, which is a major recipient of NCCIH funds. Even Harvard Medical School teaches alternative medicine.

Does it even matter? So what if patients pay a little bit more for treatments that don't work? As long as alternative therapies do no harm—premum non nocere, as the venerable medical maxim goes—and the placebo effect makes them feel a bit better, why bother opposing them?

Beyond the basic question of taxpayer dollars supporting quackery, the pursuit of unproven therapies can have tragic consequences.

Following his diagnosis of a rare, treatable form of pancreatic cancer, Apple CEO Steve Jobs postponed medical treatment for nine months. Believing in the curative power of alternative medicine, Jobs tried acupuncture, bowel cleanses, herbs and a vegan diet. Although we will never know for sure, medical experts have speculated that Jobs's faith in alternative medicine may have hastened his death.

If so, it's hardly an unusual event. Numerous reports of death and injury from alternative treatments have been documented at Whatstheharm.net. To be sure, even the best medical treatment comes with serious risks. But unlike standard medical care, the dangers associated with alternative treatments come with virtually no possibility of a health outcome better than a placebo.

Although Harkin has retired from the Senate, state support for alternative medicine seems secure. States license chiropractors while opening up the Medicaid coffers to naturopaths. Alternative medicine has been written into the Affordable Care Act, though it's uncertain how the Department of Health and Human Services will interpret the legislation. Even Hillary Clinton's medical advisor, Dr. Mark Hyman, evangelizes his own brand of alternative medicine, known as "functional medicine."

And what about that bee pollen extract that inspired Harkin to start the Office of Alternative Medicine to begin with? As with much of the rest of alternative medicine, scientific studies have long since debunked bee pollen's alleged power to minimize hay fever or any other illness. Yet as a matter of faith, people continue to buy it.  

"Think about it, Harkin," Dr. Jacobs muses. "Your allergies can go away the next day when the pollen level goes down. It's just not what I'd call rigorous thinking."

Todd Krainin is a video producer for Reason TV.

The accompanying video was produced and edited by Todd Krainin. Additional photography by Alex Manning. Music: Piano Song and The Rolling Hills of England by Plusplus, Aimless by Setumian, Drum Solo for Hospital Ghost by Lucas Perný, Eagle Feather by Kerri, Concerto for 2 Oboes in F Major Op9 no3 by performed Advent Chamber Orchestra, all under Creative Commons licenses. Subscribe to ReasonTV's YouTube Channel to receive notification when new material goes live.