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Can one be critical of unproven stem cell therapies but not unproven alternative therapies?

Growing up, I hated taking vitamins. That is, until my mom started buying fun-shaped, chewable, sweet ones for kids (now marketed to adults) because it was kind of like having candy first thing in the morning.

Flintstone vitaminsI’d love to know how much my parents spent on vitamins over the years. I’m not sure I want to know how much my wife and I have spent on vitamins for the McBride household. Like many other Canadians, we believed that taking vitamin supplements is essential for maximizing our health.

The trouble is, there is no real science to support this. In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence indicating that for most of us, vitamin supplements provide no health benefit. And they aren’t cheap. To be clear, none of us McBrides has a medical condition that requires us to supplement our diets with vitamins, so all that money my family has spent on vitamins has literally gone down the toilet.

Regular readers of The Spin will be familiar with my criticism of unproven stem cell therapies and the unscrupulous clinics that are prying money out of people with SCI for what can only be considered false hope. To profit on the false hope of unproven “treatments” is wrong. So is profiting off “treatments” that provide false or unproven claims as to their benefit, or that don’t work any better than a placebo.

The debate about such stem cell treatments receives well-deserved attention. But what about so many other health “interventions” such as vitamins that we spend our precious money on without enough contemplation?

Flat earthNow not everything has to be definitively proven by science to be of benefit. SCI BC peers have tried a lot of things that have benefited them and others that science has yet to confirm – take medicinal marijuana for pain as an example. But have you really asked yourself whether you should continue to spend money on something as dogmatically promoted, and yet unproven, as vitamin supplements? And what about other alternative therapies for which marketing claims are not backed by evidence demonstrating they work beyond the magical trickery of the placebo effect? In a recent column in Policy Options magazine, Tim Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, compares those who continue to believe the Earth is flat (yes, they are out there) to those who believe in un- and disproven therapies that are propped up by pseudoscientific rhetoric and popular belief. He uses Reiki, homeopathy, and store-bought cleansing and detoxification therapies as examples.

Proponents (likely to include some readers of The Spin) of such treatments will counter that those of us rooted in the western medical approach do not have an open enough mind or perspective to understand how these treatments work, that these treatments require one to believe that they work, and, that even if it is a placebo effect, it works. But is it ethical to charge money for something that hasn’t been shown to work or, if it does anything at all, only does so because we want to believe it does so?

Can one be critical of unproven stem cell therapies but not unproven alternative therapies? We must apply the same critical thinking and analysis to all unproven and disproven therapies. The risks associated with taking vitamin supplements, a Reiki session, or suffering through a detoxifying cleanse may be different than travelling abroad for a stem cell “cure” treatment, but all offering these treatments are profiting off of hope and a willingness to believe in something that has no basis to support it. These are individual choices, but we must think about whether our money could be better spent.

In defence of the flat Earth believers, their belief may not be based on science, but at least their belief doesn’t hit them in their pocketbook.

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