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"Health Freedom"

William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

If quacks can't win by playing according to the rules, they try to change them by switching from the scientific to the political arena. In science, a medical claim is treated as false until proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But in politics, a medical claim may be accepted until proven false or harmful. This is why proponents of laetrile, chiropractic, orthomolecular psychiatry, chelation therapy and the like, take their case to legislators rather than scientific groups.

Quacks use the concept of "health freedom" to divert attention away from themselves and toward victims of disease with whom we are naturally sympathetic. "These poor folks should have the freedom to choose whatever treatments they want," cry the quacks -- with crocodile tears. They want us to overlook two things. First, no one wants to be cheated, especially in matters of life and health. Victims of disease do not demand quack treatments because they want to exercise their "rights," but because they have been deceived into thinking that they offer hope. Second, the laws against worthless nostrums are not directed against the victims of disease but at the promoters who attempt to exploit them.

Any threat to freedom strikes deeply into American cultural values. But we must also realize that complete freedom is appropriate only in a society in which everyone is perfectly trustworthy -- and no such society exists. Experience has taught us that quackery can even lead people to poison themselves, their children and their friends.

Consumer protection laws have been passed to protect desperately ill people who are vulnerable. These laws simply require that products and services offered in the health marketplace be both safe and effective. If only safety were required, any produce or service that would not kill you on the spot could be hawked to the gullible. To weaken protection, quackery's proponents seek laws to shield their activities and force insurance companies to pay for them.

Some people claim we have too much government regulation. But the issue should be one of quality not quantity. Good regulatory laws are very important. Our opposition should be to bad regulations that stifle our economy or cramp our lifestyles unnecessarily. Consumer protection laws should be preserved.

Unfortunately, some politicians seem oblivious to these basic principles and expound the "health freedom" concept as though they are doing their constituents a favor. In reality, "health freedom" constitutes a hunting license for quackery, with open season declared on the sick, the frightened, the alienated, and the desperate. It represents a return to the law of the jungle in which the strong feed upon the weak.

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This article is adapted from The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America, editedby Stephen Barrett, M.D., and William T. Jarvis, Ph.D., published in 1994.

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