Cancer patients should be protected from ‘vile and cynical exploitation’ by the alternative therapy industry, says a leading expert.
Professor Jonathan Waxman, of Imperial College London, said legislation was needed against ‘the snake oil salesmen that peddle cures and exploit the desperate’.
But Dr George Lewith, reader in complementary medicine at Southampton University’s medical school, said most patients who use alternative therapies find them ‘helpful’ and that Prof Waxman’s comments were his personal view.
Under their current classification alternative medicines are not subject to pharmaceutical testing.
But, writing in the British Medical Journal, Prof Waxman said claims made by manufacturers to encourage the sale of alternative treatments were often incorrect and he called for them to be reclassified as drugs rather than food supplements.
Prof Waxman said the products, which may be doctored by chemicals borrowed from the conventional pharmaceutical industry, should be reclassified as drugs ‘for this is after all how they are marketed’.
It is estimated that up to 80% of all cancer patients take a complementary treatment or follow a dietary programme to combat their disease.
But Prof Waxman warned: ‘These treatments may often delay the institution of conventional therapy.
‘The claims made by companies to support the sales of such products may be overtly and malignly incorrect.’
Prof Waxman also noted that while there is a strong dietary basis to the development of cancer, once the cancer is diagnosed, a change in diet will have no effect on the outcome.
However, Dr Lewith, who worked on a study on the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in cancer patients, questioned the estimate that up to 80 per cent of cancer patients take a complementary treatment or follow a dietary programme to treat the disease.
He said: ‘Our data suggests that the use of CAM for cancer patients is around 30 per cent.
‘Our Department of Health-funded survey did not find these patients are anti conventional medicine or using wacky diets.’
Dr Lewith said Prof Waxman’s call for legislation to regulate the alternative medicines industry was ‘starting from an assumption that is not grounded in fact.’
Beverly Martin, a trustee of the charity the Institute for Complementary Medicine (ICM), said: ‘The treatment of cancer and any life-threatening illness requires a training of the highest standard, whether allopathic (conventional) or complementary, whether concerned with natural remedies or supplements, or orthodox therapy.
‘There are published cases suggesting the great benefit to some patients of naturopathic treatment including radical detoxification and dietary changes.’