It is time to protect patients from "vile and cynical exploitation" by the alternative medicines industry, argues a cancer expert in this week's BMJ.
It is estimated that up to 80% of all patients with cancer take a complementary treatment or follow a dietary programme to help treat their cancer, writes Jonathan Waxman, Professor of Oncology at Imperial College London.
Yet the rationale for the use of many of these approaches is obtuse - one might even be tempted to write misleading, he says.
Indeed the claims made by companies to support the sales of such products may be overtly and malignly incorrect and, in many cases, the products may be doctored by chemicals borrowed from the conventional pharmaceutical industry. The reason that these products are accessible to patients is that they are not subject to the testing of pharmaceuticals because they are classified as food supplements.
So why do patients take alternative medicines? Why is science disregarded? How can it be that treatments that don't work are regarded as life saving?
Waxman believes that it is because the complementary therapists offer something that doctors cannot offer - hope. If you eat this, take that, avoid this, and really believe this then we can promise you sincerely that you will be cured.
And if the patient is not cured, it is the patient who has failed, not the alternative therapy. The patient has let down the alternative practitioner and disappointed his family who have encouraged his "treatment."
As well as the complementary medicines they take, many patients will have changed their diets in order to cure their cancers, says the author. But although there is a strong dietary basis to the development of cancer, once cancer has been diagnosed no change in diet will lead to any improvement in cancer outcomes, he writes.
Why do patients change their diet? For some it is a way of taking back some control of a situation that is entirely out of their control, says Waxman. For others it is because of the pressure put on them by families, friends or vested interest groups to "go organic."
"It's time for legislation to focus on a particularly vulnerable section of our society and do something to limit the exploitation of our patients," he says. Why not subject the alternative medicines industry to the level of scrutiny that defines pharmaceuticals?
"Reclassify these agents as drugs - for this is after all how they are marketed - and protect our patients from vile and cynical exploitation whose intellectual basis, at best, might be viewed as delusional. The current EU initiative to bring forward legislation on this matter is welcomed."