A selection of traditional medicine on display at the Faraday muti market in Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
A selection of traditional medicine on display at the Faraday muti market in Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE new complementary and alternative medicines (Cams) regulations are draconian, misleading and insulting. In the name of science, they might promote rather than curb scams and pseudoscience. Instead of protecting consumers, they erode access to products and information. They subject supposedly unscientific Cams to supposedly scientific allopathic standards. Notwithstanding the regulations and the pretentious explanatory memorandum, the difference between the two is smaller than protagonists of science assume.

The far-reaching regulations were gazetted with the Department of Health’s characteristic disregard for the public and Parliament. Instead of legislation being passed by MPs under the separation of powers, it was concocted behind closed doors. It effectively bans many popular Cams and subjects others to prohibitive controls, which the Health Products Association says are "unworkable". Cams, including your favourite supplements, must now pass mainstream tests. What might render the measure unconstitutional (as not being a law of general application) is that traditional healers (sangomas, etc) are treated differently.

That Cams are "unscientific" simply means they have not yet passed tests applied to most, but not all, mainstream treatments. A leading authority, the US’s National Institutes of Health, explains that "the list of what is considered to be Cam changes continually, as those therapies that are proven to be safe and effective become adopted into conventional health". Every mainstream treatment starts as someone’s alternative idea, including "natural", "holistic" and "traditional" healers. Unless treatments are shown to be dangerous, they should be allowed without false or misleading claims. Antagonists, such as CAMcheck, should be as free to denounce Cams as Cams folk are free to denounce both CAMcheck and aspects of mainstream medicine.

Pretentious regulators want us to believe, and may themselves believe, that science proves things. It does not. Especially not health science. There is no such thing as "scientific proof". The father of the scientific method, Karl Popper, explained that science establishes degrees of probability, never absolutes except disproof. Scientific evidence ranges from overwhelming, such as the efficacy of anaesthetics, to virtually zero, such as the nature of consciousness, something as fundamental to medicine as life and death.

Mainstream registration of Cams could cost billions. Where the cost of approval exceeds profits, perfectly safe mainstream medicines are abandoned as "orphan drugs". That will be the fate of many beloved Cams unless the law is rectified or continues to be unenforced. The regulations have such absurdities as requiring unregistered Cams to say: "This medicine is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease." That Cams must be called "medicine" and not be "intended" to be medicine is like a warning that "this newspaper is not intended to be read". Of course treatment is intended, and consumers are entitled to know. The purpose of elaborate, constitutionalised and parliamentary processes is to prevent such nonsense.

There is a flawed notion that mainstream medicine establishes safety and efficacy conclusively. Science is about uncertainty, as revealed by the new US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warning for statins. Statins are among the commonest medicines, once thought to be so safe that healthy people were encouraged to take them. Having assured us they are safe, the FDA now warns of statins causing liver, cognitive, memory, concentration, blood sugar, diabetic and muscle damage. A local statin insert has been extended to include skeletal, neurological, hypersensitivity, skin, reproductive, eye and other "abnormalities".

Consumer rights are violated by laws that ban nonfraudulent products and good-faith claims. "Unproven" remedies might work because of chemical reactions or belief, which are perfectly scientific. From tobacco to Cams, consumers are entitled to honest competition and marketing among suppliers. These regulations create false, misleading impressions about consumer protection and science.

Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation.