Can we not save herbal medicine?

A bit ago, Avaaz sent me a somewhat hyperbolic email asking me to help them “save herbal medicines”. I tend to distrust anybody who uses the phrases “ban” and “big Pharma” in their very first sentence:

Dear friends, In 3 days, the EU will ban much of herbal medicine, pressing more of us to take pharmaceutical drugs that drive the profits of big Pharma. The EU Directive erects high barriers to any herbal remedy that hasn't been on the market for 30 years -- including virtually all Chinese, Ayurvedic, and African traditional medicine. It's a draconian move that helps drug companies and ignores thousands of years of medical knowledge. We need a massive outcry against this. Together, our voices can press the EU Commission to fix the directive, push our national governments to refuse to implement it, and give legitimacy to a legal case before the courts. Sign below, forward this email to everyone, and let's get to 1 million voices to save herbal medicine: It's hard to believe, but if a child is sick, and there is a safe and natural herbal remedy for that illness, it may be impossible to find that remedy. On May 1st the Directive will create major barriers to manufactured herbal remedies, requiring enormous costs, years of effort, and endless expert processes to get each and every product approved. Pharmaceutical companies have the resources to jump through these hoops but hundreds of small- and medium-sized herbal medicine businesses, across Europe and worldwide, will go bust. We can stop this. The directive has been passed in the shadows of the bureaucracy, and it cannot stand under the light of democratic scrutiny. The EU Commission can withdraw or amend it, and a court case is currently challenging it to do so. If European citizens everywhere come together now, it will give legitimacy to the legal case, and add to growing pressure on the Commission. Sign below, and forward this email to everyone: There are arguments for better regulation of natural medicine, but this draconian directive harms the ability of Europeans to make safe and healthy choices. Let's stand up for our health, and our right to choose safe herbal medicine. With hope and determination, Ricken, Iain, Giulia, Benjamin, Alex, Alice, Pascal, Luis and the rest of the Avaaz team.

I thought they were being a bit silly, so I sent them this email:

You do a lot of great campaigns, but this isn't one of them. Why shouldn't herbal medicines be subject to the same rules as, well, real medicines? Herbal medicines are not being banned. And no future regulations will ever affect any remedies that have been proven to be safe and effective. If the medicines are as safe and effective as you say, they're quite safe forever. What the status quo represents is a huge loophole for selling dangerous or useless medicines, endangering lives for profit, simply because the remedies are "traditional". What we need a huge outrcy against is that quacks are allowed to sell vulnerable people false promises. Andrew

This is the email I got back:

Dear Andrew, Thanks for writing in about the EU Herbals campaign. You may not believe in herbal medicines as a remedy, but that is not what is on trial here, and Avaaz hasn't endorsed herbals as an alternative or proven from of medication, nor have we said that these products should not be subjected to regulation. What we are calling for is for this Directive to be amended, because it’s heavy-handed regulation that undermines consumer choice and will force small producers out of business. We have written a more detailed response here: Avaaz weighs every campaign decision closely. In this instance, we polled a random 10,000 person sample of our EU list, and found that 79% of responders supported the campaign. We also carefully monitor feedback from our members on every issue and this one in particular seems to have drawn a very heated response. Our small team cannot answer every single email we receive, which is why we’ve attempted to answer concerns publicly. We hope these answers help clarify what we've said and why, and that even if you still cannot agree with this campaign, you will continue to support other Avaaz campaigns in the future. Thanks, Dominick

I sent this reply:

Okay, but one question: What I believe is irrelevant. Would you start an email with "herbal remedies do not work, but..." You say Avaaz hasn't endorsed herbals as proven medication, but plainly it has: sending out an email to all your subscribers with hyperbolic language like "it's hard to believe, but if a child is sick, and there is a safe and natural herbal remedy for that illness, as of this week it may be impossible to find that cure" is reckless and irresponsible. The proposed rules include a generous grandfathering scheme for established traditions, but I just can't accept that a quack's right to profit from vulnerable, sick people is important, or that "consumer choice" should include the choice to be conned by them. I think this sort of thing is always really complicated and reducing it to bans and petitions is more damaging than it is useful. Andrew

That was a couple of months ago. They haven’t replied, but they did email me asking for my help freeing a lesbian blogger who never existed. I should have asked about that, see if I got a response saying “you may not believe in Amina Abdallah Aral al Omari, but…”

There’s a case to be made that herbal medicine is an area where it’s possible to make an effective product on a small scale even when you haven’t the resources to perform proper trials — but by the same token it’s impossible to know if your product works or not if you haven’t the resources to perform a trial, so it would be a tricky case to present coherently.

Since Avaaz did not bother to explain properly, preferring a tabloidesque “ban this draconian ban” approach, the regulation in question is the European Directive on Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products, and was passed on 30 March 2004. Avaaz (established January 2007) alerted the world to it on 29 April 2011, fully three days before the seven-year grandfathering period ended.

Generally, to be honest, I find the tone of many campaigns annoying: they start with the assumption that I agree with them and then try to spur me into action, and I think they would be more effective if they started with the assumption that I didn’t know or care about the issue in question, inform me, enrage me, and then ask me to help. If nothing else, it would force them to explain their position more fully.

In this case I think it would have undermined their argument a bit had they had to send an email saying “in three days, a ban on unproven and/or dangerous medicines passed in 2004 will come into affect and the quacks who sell it could go out of business”, which is of course exactly why I’d like them to at least draft that email before badgering me with their silly concerns.