Greenwashing Quackery

(Photo by flickr user Emiilyy)

 

Is the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) ever ethically justified? What about its promotion by advocates? Skeptics have long criticized alternative medicine for its inherent lack of demonstrable efficacy and sometimes serious safety issues. This puts the question of ethics front and centre when we discuss the promotion of CAM, and there are excellent discussions of medical ethics as it relates to alternative medicine (see here and here). If we consider ethics more generally, I think most people would agree that it’s wrong to claim that a treatment works when it doesn’t, and ethically questionable to claim that a treatment works when you don’t know yet for sure.

I would go further than this. When you’re a practitioner offering CAM products and services for sale to the public, you have the responsibility to ensure that your claims can be backed up by evidence prior to making them available. It’s no surprise to me that unfounded and outright false claims continue to be made about CAM, but it irritates me to no end that people feel that they should bear no consequences if proven wrong. CAM proponents feel entitled to make whatever claims they want. If they’re proven wrong their claims then become irrelevant, because it’s up to the person to decide what’s best for them, in the spirit of patient autonomy. You wouldn’t want to take people’s choices away would you? (Yeah you do, you fascist.)

Yet given the fact that all alternative treatments lack sufficient evidence of efficacy, and the fact that some alternative products and services pose known risks to users, it would appear that the promotion or advertising of CAM products and services would be ethically unjustified. Unless, of course, you dodge the obvious safety and efficacy problem, place CAM as eco-friendly and frame the real problem as an issue of individual choice.  This is exactly what the deal-of-the-day company ethicalDeal seem to be doing.

Let the Greenwashing Begin!

The people at ethicalDeal are hoping to carve out a market among those who are interested in “healthier, more sustainable products/services”. They feature deals on all sorts of products and services, all with an eco-friendly, green tint. Predictably, there are deals for organic foods, clothing and so on. They’ve also featured alt-med products and services, and in doing so they have allowed some very questionable claims to be made.

BioEnergetic Intolerance Elimination – Quack Allergy Cure

BioEnergetic Intolerance Elimination is a bogus allergy treatment and cure. It involves the use of a galvanic skin response machine that, when applied to certain acupressure points on the body, allegedly cures the allergy by reprogramming the body to accept the allergic frequency. You can see me take on another practitioner of the technique here.  In the comments of this ad, I challenged ethicalDeal and the practitioner to provide evidence for their claims, and specifically noted the problematic testimonials and language. They were eventually removed, but they maintained that the service was a legitimate allergy treatment.

HomeopathyNot Just the Ultimate Quackery, also the Ultimate Eco-Friendly Quackery.

This deal allows you to attend a discounted workshop, where you can learn about the wonderful ways homeopathy can help treat and prevent the cold and flu. EthicalDeal is trying to tap into people’s erroneous sense that anything natural is healthier and certainly better for the environment. They probably believe that themselves. This leads to odd explanations about the ethical qualities of this deal: 

Helps clients treat and prevent health issues with natural remedies that are less harmful on the environment than traditional pharmaceuticals.

Huh? What about the fact that homeopathy doesn’t work? I would argue that all the packaging around homeopathic products is extra garbage that wouldn’t need to be produced if homeopathy weren’t peddled as effective medicine. Also, what about all the wasted drinking water involved in the dilution process that gets thrown away to join all the memories of dinosaur pee, the wasted labour hours, and all the wasted electricity?

Pressured to defend how promoting quackery is in any way “ethical”, the advertisers begin to do the not-my-problem dance.

Ear Candling – Not Illegal, at Least not the Way We’re Doing it.

This deal features your choice of quackery. You could go with the ion foot bath cleanse and poop non-existent toxins through the pores of your feet, or you could live dangerously with an illegal ear candling service. Fed up with ethicalDeal’s lack of concern for their customers, I took to twitter to challenge them on the ethics of promoting quackery, especially illegal quackery. On 4 occasions I noted that ear candles are illegal in Canada, and each time they avoided taking responsibility.

I sent them the Health Canada link establishing ear candles illegal status, which apparently they didn’t read carefully enough.

 

They apparently also didn’t read their ad that has language promoting ear candling as effective for cleaning out ears, which is one of the alleged therapeutic purposes that they acknowledge is illegal. One wonders how the practitioner in this case could have acquired the ear candles they use from Australia, when import is banned and no licenses have ever been issued.

Nope, no contradiction here!

Conclusion

The preferred explanatory tool of this advertiser. By flickr user misterbisson.

If ethicalDeal is interested in their customer’s safety and satisfaction, then they should be conscious of the irony involved in promoting ineffective, implausible, dangerous and illegal products and services as an ethical, eco-friendly choice. They both defend the legitimacy of what they promote, and deflect responsibility by claiming “let the buyer beware”. So beware consumers, this advertiser isn’t taking ownership of the of quackery they promote.

3 Responses to “Greenwashing Quackery”

  1. Peter Quin-Conroy says:

    Wow thanks for the great post. I am en EthicalDeal subscriber and have also been troubled by some of their more unethical deals. When I’ve contacted Ethical Deal they have either ignore my emails or replied with the standard cop-out.

    However, they also have deals for locally-made, ethically-sourced and organic (which is not all woo, it just depends on your reason for going organic). As a vegan they also offer deals that appeal to me.

    The question for me at least is whether the good they offer outweighs the bad? At this stage I think staying a subscriber and then continuing pointing out their unethical deals to them could be of more benefit.

  2. Molly Quinn says:

    I can’t believe they are promoting an illegal practice and trying to get around it by implying there is a difference between ‘therapeutic’ ear candling and the ‘relaxing/spiritual’ kind. That’s really sketchy.

  3. there is a sucker born every second and people will always take advatage of that in anyway they can, if they can get away with it. buyer beware!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks


  • Dianne Sousa

    Dianne holds a degree from the University of Guelph in criminal justice, public policy and social psychology. She became involved in the skeptical movement after becoming disillusioned with the addictions counselling field. Skeptical topics of interest include alternative medicine and it's regulation in Canada, pseudoscience and the law and skeptical activism. She also crochets extensively and enjoys bad film, usually at the same time. Follow me on twitter: @DianneSousa. All views expressed by Dianne are her personal views alone, and do not represent the opinions of any current, former or future employers, or any organizations or associations that she may be affiliated with.