Public fed weekly two-hour infomerical for unproven remedies
Toronto radio listeners interested in alternative solutions to health problems have one less outlet since Talk 640 yanked the Saturday-afternoon The Touch Of Health show hosted by Christine McPhee.
It’s a situation followers of natural health trends may find appalling given the current pharmaceutical monopoly, but many of McPhee’s fans may not have been aware that the show — which often featured big names in natural healing like Carolyn deMarco and Zolton Rona — was in fact a two-hour paid ad.
With nasty accusations flying on both sides, the demise of McPhee’s infomercial raises questions about the role of scientific verification in the natural health field and the problem of conflict of interest in ads dressed up as programming.
McPhee is adamant that her show “consisted of information of high calibre.” Many of the guests who appeared were “credible, informative and back up their information,” she assures me.
But that’s not what her antagonist, doctor Terry Polevoy, believes. He has made it his mission to discredit purveyors of what he sees as bogus remedies.
Polevoy, who runs acne care clinics in Waterloo and London, has been writing letters urging broadcasters and regulatory bodies like the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) and the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council (CBSC) to clamp down on those he feels are advocating unscientific treatments.
A former anti-tobacco campaigner, Polevoy says he was once supportive of alternative medicine but re-evaluated his position after a common-law spouse died of cancer after being treated by unorthodox approaches.
“When I see articles and magazine ads for different products, I follow up on them,” he says. “I go to meetings where the multi-level marketing people are saying they can cure you with coral calcium, and I take notes and put the transcripts out there for people to read.”
Canadian and American regulatory authorities, he insists, are incapable of overseeing the alternative health industry, and he says it’s the job of the media — and watchdogs like him — to stem the tide of bogus remedies.
Polevoy fired off the first of many e-mails about McPhee back in February 1999, when she hosted a program from the Big Carrot health food store on the Danforth.
The doctor objected to McPhee’s reference to the herb comfrey, which she claims is one of nature’s bone builders but which he insists is toxic when ingested and can cause cancer in animals.
“The delivery of false and dangerous health information on your radio show is ridiculous,” he wrote her.
I am standing in a room at the Convention Centre, at the first annual Natural Health Achievement Awards, an event designed to help kick off the Canadian Health Food Association’s Expo East 2000 annual trade show and convention.
Hosting the ceremonies — informally dubbed the Golden Apple Awards — is McPhee, a perky redhead with a well-crafted talk-show voice. The awards are provided courtesy of Palm Canada, which has made sure to place a nice, shiny little display of four of their latest palm-sized electronic organizer gizmos alongside the little gold trophies.
The first doc to be honoured is holistic practitioner Katrina Kulhay, who announces the creation of a new three-storey “wellness” center at Yonge and St. Clair.
Next up is Jozef Krop, the Mississauga practitioner of environmental medicine charged by the College of Physicians and Surgeons for his unconventional methods of diagnosis and treatment.
The final award goes to well-known alternative MD Zolton Rona, who in turn pays tribute to Krop’s struggle, a back-patting exercise that seems at times to carry an almost old-fashioned revivalist tone.
It’s a constant refrain: western, allopathic medicine is “bad,” alternative nutritional and holistic approaches are “good.” It’s an analysis that ignores the fact that business concerns are just as much in evidence in health-food circles as in the allopathic medical profession.
McPhee later acknowledges that the connections between alternative practitioners and the health-food industry are hard to disentangle, one relying upon the other to keep going. It’s not unlike the symbiotic relationship between conventional doctors and pharmaceutical companies — except in the latter case there exists at least some pretense of scientific objectivity in the form of controlled clinical trials.
While the current regulatory framework for remedies has been widely criticized, the fact remains that it has no counterpart in the world of natural medicine, where separating the promoters of a therapy from those profiting from it is a challenge.
McPhee’s radio show, for example, was financed by Puresource Natural Products and other such companies. I ask her in a telephone conversation to comment on the problem of credibility in this kind of situation. McPhee in turn asks for my indulgence while she sets up a three-way call with Tim Bolen, her California-based PR guy.
“This is not a health issue — this is a political issue,” Bolen warns me from his cellphone as he approaches the Mexican border en route to a clinic in Tijuana.
I gulp, though, when he mentions his destination — to pay a visit to one of his other clients, Hulda Regehr Clark, who runs an alternative health clinic in Tijuana and has authored four books, including The Cure For HIV And AIDS.
This 1993 self-published tract occupies a rather dubious position among my collection of alternative AIDS writings. Clark posits that the real cause of both AIDS and cancer is an intestinal parasite that is triggered into action by the solvent benzene.
Curing AIDS, Clark writes, can be achieved by taking three specific herbs together and eliminating all sources of benzene from one’s environment, although she fails to offer a shred of believable evidence to support this far-out claim.
But books are one thing, and the use of the public airwaves for advertising another. Who is to be the arbiter of what is fair?
Ian Grant, director of programming at Talk 640, says he doesn’t “have the resources to research this stuff and find out what’s true and what’s not.” He does say that cutting McPhee’s show wasn’t an easy decision, but had to do with a desire to improve the quality of the station’s weekend programming.
Grant notes that while there are announcements at both the start and end of every such show to indicate that it is an infomercial, “people don’t listen to radio that way. The more I listened to (infomercial) stuff on the weekend, the more uncomfortable I felt with it.”
McPhee has since filed a complaint with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) charging that the station was unfair. She points out that 640 has since featured show host Spider Jones promoting a multi-level marketing product as well as a show called Ask The Experts, featuring a product called Enrich.
(Grant admits, “That was a programming mistake — you won’t hear that again.”)
At the CBSC in Ottawa, director Ron Cohen notes that “much of what McPhee has had to say in letters to us really went outside anything that we could possibly do. Our issues relate to good taste and the portrayal of sex and violence,” he says.
At the Advertising Standards Council, Linda Nagel says that if her council gets a complaint about the advertising of a particular product that doesn’t have a drug identification number (the way pharmaceuticals do), the matter is turned over to Health Canada.
And at Health Canada, Roslyn Tremblay confirms that the Food And Drugs Act forbids the advertising of any “food, drug, cosmetic or device” to the public as a “treatment, preventative or cure” for any one of over three dozen diseases. “We can take a program off the air,” she says.
Tremblay declines to say whether any complaints about McPhee’s show had been filed with her department.