Joe Mercola: Proof positive that quackery sells

For as many benefits as the Internet and the web have brought us in the last two decades, there are also significant downsides. I could go into all the societal changes brought about by the proliferation of this new technology, not the least of which (to me, at least) is the newfound ability of someone like me to find an audience. After all, pre-Internet and pre-blog, I could try to write books, or I could try to get onto TV and radio, but those are very difficult things to do. Over the last seven years, steadily blogging, I’ve built up an audience. True, compared to the “old media” and the more popular examples of the new media, this blog is the proverbial tiny voice in the wilderness. Normally, I have to actively think about people such as Dr. Oz, Oprah Winfrey, The Doctors, and that wretched hive of scum and quackery, The Huffingto Post, just to remind me how small my influence is when compared to the forces arrayed against science-based medicine.

It’s rather depressing, though, to have it rubbed in my face from a source I didn’t expect.

I’m referring to an article that appeared yesterday in Chicago Magazine entitled Dr. Mercola: Visionary or Quack? Although I agreed with much of what was in the article, which featured some familiar people trying to provide balance to Mercola’s pseudoscience, I must admit that I couldn’t help but find the very title of the article is annoying. Putting the word “visionary” in the same title with the word “Dr. Mercola” is profoundly offensive to anyone who values reason, science, and science-based medicine. I realize the reporter was doing nothing more than being provocative, but it sets the tone in a way that makes it sound as though there is even a controversy over what the answer to such a question is. That answer, of course, is, in my not-so-humble opinion, that Dr. Mercola is a quack. Many are the posts I’ve written right here on this very blog spelling out in painful detail exactly why it is that I think this is so. For one thing, Dr. Mercola is antivaccine to the core, even going so far as to team up with the antivaccine group the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) to spread its propaganda. This article actually provides a tidbit of information that I didn’t know about. In fact, it’s a tidbit so juicy that I’m going to mention it now, even though it doesn’t show up until late in the article:

Mercola says he recently donated $1 million to several alternative medicine groups, including the National Vaccine Information Center, which describes itself as a “vaccine watch dog.” Part of the money, according to the group’s website, was used to pay for an ad called “Vaccines: Know the Risk,” which was shown hourly on the CBS Jumbotron in Times Square for several weeks last spring.

Mercola says he is simply trying to ask hard questions about the potential harm caused by inoculations and voice his opposition to government-imposed mandates. “There are virtually no safety studies done [on vaccines],” Mercola says. “We don’t know what the effects of combining them are. We don’t know what the long-term complications are.” He says the government and media downplay very real risks and either underreport or ignore serious adverse reactions. Meanwhile, “we don’t have the option to say no [to getting the shots]. It’s just insane what’s happening, and more and more vaccines [are coming] down the line.”

After wading through the tired, familiar, antivaccine lies, I had to conclude that, this, as they say, explains a lot. The NVIC has always been kind of a shoestring operation. When Barbara Loe Fisher started buying ads in AMC Theaters during the Thanksgiving holiday season in 2010, I wondered where she got the money. When she bought ad time on the CBS Jumbotron in Times Square this spring, I wondered where she got the money. When she bought ads with the service that provides video content to Delta Airlines, I wondered where she got the money.

Now I know. What I don’t know (but would love to know) is the identity of the other “alternative medicine” groups to which Mercola donated part of that $1 million.

What I also now know is that Joe Mercola is rich, as in filthy rich, as in “rolling in the dough” rich, as in “raking it in hand over fist rich.” After all, he has $1 million to give away to the NVIC and various other quackery-promoting groups. Many people never make $1 million over the course of their entire lives. And how did Mercola make all this money? Here’s a hint: It wasn’t through practicing standard medicine. Oh, no. He made his millions selling and practicing what I consider to be quackery.

Even though I found the story to be informative and morbidly fascinating in the same way that reading about Jeffrey Dahmer is fascinating, this story was also kind of irritating in that Mercola is portrayed in a familiar journalistic trope: That of the “self-made” man, a veritable rags-to-riches story, portraying him as starting in 1985 in an 800 sq. ft. office as a regular medical practitioner. No, not regular medical practitioner, an allopathic medical practitioner. How I hate it when journalists use that term. The reporter even gets it wrong when he refers to “allopathic” as a “term that originally referred to the practice of traditional health care but has become a mocking putdown by certain alternative-medicine advocates.” No, no, no, no. “Allopathic” was a term that Samuel Hahnemann, the originator of homeopathy, used to describe any medicine that wasn’t homeopathy. It was a derogatory term right from its very creation, a put down by homeopaths against science-based medicine. Similar misfires occur when the article cites the inflated figure of 40% of all Americans seeking “alternative health care.” The problem is that that number is hugely inflated because it often includes prayer and things like yoga, which is nothing more than a form of gentle exercise. Another misfire: The author says that “plenty of the things he advocates are rooted in common sense and even good science.”

Uh, no. They aren’t.

In any case, apparently sometime in the early 1990s, Mercola encountered a patient that he couldn’t help but then “found the answer” in a book called The Yeast Connection. Basically, this is a book that blames chronic pain and all sorts of chronic health problems on chronic yeast infections. It’s pure woo, of course, which makes it appropriate that one of the most popular woo-meisters in existence got his start reading that book. Mercola also repeats the same old story that he’s repeated before:

In 1997, as a way to share what he had found that would be “useful and helpful,” he started Mercola.com. It proved a hit. But because it didn’t charge for content or accept ads, it was also a money drain. In the first three years, Mercola estimates that he spent half a million dollars on the site. To keep it afloat, he says, “I had three options: to get paid subscribers; to sell information, which I didn’t want to do; or to sell products, which is what I wound up doing. . . . The purpose for selling items is to have a revenue stream so we can pay our staff to provide information to educate the public and make a difference and fund [our] initiatives.”

Mercola told this story before when he was on Dr. Oz’s show. Dr. Oz asked him whether he didn’t have a conflict of interest because he makes money selling all these “natural” remedies. A lot of money. Mercola’s response, you might recall, was in essence that it was OK because he was selling only “natural” products, that he didn’t sell anything the first three years of his website’s existence, and that he believes in what he sells. Never mind the quackery like Tullio Simoncini’s claim that all cancer is due to a fungus and that all cancer can be cured with baking soda.

Now here’s the most depressing part. Remember how I said I was bummed out to have the differential in influence between various science-based medicine websites and that of someone like Dr. Mercola:

According to traffic-tracking firm Quantcast, Mercola.com draws about 1.9 million unique visitors per month, each of whom returns an average of nearly ten times a month. That remarkable “stickiness” puts the site’s total visits on a par with those to the National Institutes of Health’s website. (Mercola claims his is “the world’s No. 1 natural health website,” citing figures from Alexa.com.) Mercola’s 200,000-plus “likes” on Facebook are more than double the number for WebMD. And two of his eight books–2003’s The No-Grain Diet and 2006’s The Great Bird Flu Hoax–have landed on the New York Times bestseller list.

That’s right. Mercola’s website has traffic equivalent to that of the NIH website. Think about that for a second. On one side, we have a reliable, science-based website (well, except for the NCCAM section). On the other side, we have a quack website. Both get the same traffic.

One thing the article nails is the root of Mercola’s appeal to the gullible. First, he taps into the distrust of government and institutions that is so prevalent today. His messages of “don’t trust the government” and “don’t trust pharmaceutical companies” resonate in our Tea Party-infused time. Mercola, as we have seen, is a master at this, and his followers lap it up. Second, he’s, as the article says, a “gifted marketer.” That much is true. Mercola even says he studied marketing, and it shows:

If there were any doubt about the importance of marketing to the operation, it was dispelled when I was given a quick tour of Mercola’s sprawling headquarters. The lobby of Dr. Mercola’s Natural Health Center looks like the kind of well-appointed suburban office where you’d expect vanity procedures such as face-lifts to be offered. As it turns out, only one short hallway is dedicated to patient services. “Marketing and customer service take up most of the rest,” a new-patient coordinator told me.

Based on what I know about Mercola, that sounds about right. One little section of his empire devoted to actual patient care, the rest all devoted to marketing and fulfilling online orders. That’s very telling and entirely consistent with Mercola’s behavior. He might have been a real doctor at one time, but in 2012 he exists only to enrich himself by selling a mixture of the unremarkable, the unproven, and what I consider to be quackery. Certainly the archive of articles on his website is a treasure trove of quackery, antivaccine rants, quack apologia, and rants against the government and big pharma, interspersed with videos and radio interviews, and more. Truly, it’s a multimedia empire of woo. Whenever anyone criticizes him, he invokes the “pharma shill” gambit:

I can see things that are just obvious and clear to me. I don’t need 30 more years of science to support it. Am I wrong sometimes? Sure. Everyone’s wrong [sometimes]. . . . People call me a snake-oil salesman, of course. They’re free to do that.

Consider this Orac exercising his freedom to do just that. After all, Mercola just said he didn’t mind.