How Big Alt-Med Tried (and Failed) to Silence a Scientist

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Sorta transcript:

In past videos, I’ve mentioned “Big Alt Med.” Obviously this is a reference to “Big Pharma,” the label given to the pharmaceutical industry by the people critical of them. To be fair, that includes me — Big Pharma is a behemoth, and they are an often-times dangerous lobby that vocally supports policies that increases their profits to the detriment of the public.

“Big Pharma” is also a moniker used by people who think science-based medicine as a whole is corrupt and useless. These people may think vaccines cause autism, or that homeopathy is the best way to treat cancer. The vast majority of them rail about Big Pharma while driving their SUVs to Wholefoods to pick up some all-natural “alternative medicine” from small mom-and-pop companies like Nature’s Bounty, Vitamin World, Puritan’s Pride and Sundown.

The problem with that is that all those companies are owned by a single New York company known as NBTY Inc., which has made sales in excess of $2 billion per year in the United States alone. Most supplement sales go to companies like Unilever and Bayer — in other words, “Big Pharma.”

This is “Big Alt Med”: a $34 billion a year industry that is a vital part of Big Pharma.

Big Alt Med came to my mind this week when I read about Dr. Pieter Cohen, a Harvard doctor and researcher who published a study revealing that some weight-loss supplements currently on shelves contain a potentially dangerous synthetic chemical similar in structure to amphetamines. Last November, one of the supplement makers sued Cohen for libel, saying the study was slanderous because the company claims the chemical is derived “naturally” from a bush.

Jared Wheat is the cowardly, litigious asshole who owns Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals. He came up with the idea for his supplement business while in prison for charges related to hawking ecstasy pills. And even though he ultimately lost his libel case with Cohen, he told STAT News that it was sort of a win, because other researchers and science communicators who are interested in educating the public about potentially dangerous substances will see that he was willing and able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to drag an innocent man through court.

Lucky for Cohen, he had the support of Harvard and was backed by their insurance up to $5 million, though Wheat began by suing him for more than that. Not every researcher will be quite so lucky, which is why over the past decade activists have attempted to improve libel laws in both the US and the UK to allow greater freedom for journalists and researchers to criticize wealthy targets with solid evidence.

Wheat freely admits that he’s hopeful that will all change once Trump is in charge, and it very well might — Trump has been outspoken about his hatred of the free press, and I have no doubt that he will attempt to chip away at 1st amendment rights in the hopes of squelching criticism of himself. It’s going to be tough going for those of us who try to hold powerful people and industries honest.

As for Cohen, he has confirmed that he’s going to fight harder than ever. He has a number of new studies coming out that are sure to continue to piss off the greedy quacks trying to make a quick buck off an uninformed public. Good for him for not backing down! I hope more people share his story to give him the support he needs to keep going and to inspire other people to not self-censor scientific fact, even if it means you may be in for a legal battle.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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