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Feb 3, 2016

Vitamins are crap, stop taking them

Vitamins don't actually improve your health and might cause detrimental effects. So why are Aussies stuffing them down their gullets?

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On Monday, SmartCompany reported the latest moment in the enchanted rise of Australian health brand Blackmores. Now an ASX 200 company, BKL’s value did dip a little Monday, but not before a breathlessly documented surge across the past 12 months that reads just as fantastically as some of the 80-year-old company’s naturopathic claims.

Blackmores’ nosebleed ascent is widely attributed to the talents of CEO Christine Holgate. The chief, who recently brokered a deal to produce infant formula that has market observers lactating, is admired for her marketing pluck. Shareholders did endure temporary gooseflesh in 2011 when a pact with the Pharmacy Guild was thwarted. But Holgate, who championed the attempt to prompt independent pharmacists to discuss Blackmores’ products with patients on receipt of their medical scripts as a “Coke and fries” deal, moved on to build her company’s extraordinary value and herself an extraordinary weekend retreat.

Blackmores has been responsive to emerging Asian markets, which, according to routinely crass descriptions by local financial press, crave the “purity” of Australian products. But its gear happens to be selling like hot cakes, or kale chips or whatever, in our own supermarkets and pharmacies. Which is to say, we can’t continue to point to Chinese gullibility when we are swallowing so much of this stuff ourselves. According to a CBA analysis, domestic sales of Blackmores vitamins have been particularly strong, with a 70% increase in sales at Chemist Warehouse and earnings before interest and tax up 88% in that division.

This means, of course, that Holgate is doing a bang-up job of selling holistic Coke and fries. But it also means that Australians are buying into “complementary” medicine in increasing numbers. ABS surveys on supplements and consultation with “complementary” practitioners consistently show an upswing in spending on snake oil, while our interest in TV chefs spruiking scientistic bullshit consistently shows a downturn in our intelligence.

The money press is full of mild hypotheses for this increased interest. The AFR and similar publications describe an emerging consumer interest in “wellness”, “purity” and “proactive health”. I guess a lot of traders take this crap, so press can’t just go ahead and say that people are annually purchasing a $4 billion myth that produces little but colourful urine.

Why are we buying so much of this waste? And why has the size of the Australian latrine that receives it grown every year this past decade?  Sure, the usefulness of gingko-whatchamacallit in correcting bad breath or bad vibes or whatever is not, strictly speaking, falsifiable.  But neither is the existence of the tooth fairy.

There is very little evidence that nutritional supplements are of benefit to anyone who does not have a diagnosed nutritional deficiency, such as anaemia or scurvy. There is, however, some evidence linking the consumption of multi-vitamins to early death in women and some that suggests that men who take vitamin E and the dietary supplement selenium are at increased risk of prostate cancer. Of course, I have collected anecdata that finds that firm belief in the findings of a single nutritional study — even the sort that happens to confirm my anti-vitamin bias — is a tediously dangerous habit.

It is this climate of half-arsed scientism that is, in part, responsible for the growth of the vitamin industry. We have come to imbue marketing terms like “tested” with a kind of rational mysticism, and the stench of this quasi-science can be currently smelled most keenly on the ketosis breath of Paleo fans — those guys who are always saying something important sounding about triglycerides or ancient history.

But as Stanford Professor John Ioannidis points out, it’s not just us consumers who are to blame for this science-y seeming faith in unscientific conclusions. Physicians and nutritional researchers are themselves to blame with their overproduction of unreliable results. Extraordinary claims in nutritional science are “proven” by quackademics, and we come to believe we have extraordinary evidence before us. Certainly my local pharmacist seems to be one of the many scientifically trained professionals who has come to believe in the extraordinary power of the unfalsifiable — now the same thing as proof. He tries to sell me dingleberry leaf extract, or something, whenever I pick up my migraine medication. “It’s been clinically tested,” he says.

The integrity of systematic review is imperilled, but this is not the only reason that we are hurling down those fistfuls of vitamins that professors of internal medicine beg us to refuse. It’s not just the sugar of false enlightenment that helps this non-medicine go down, but a sweet act of what we feel is rebellion.

There is great appeal in knowing something that They Don’t Want You To Know. If there were not, no one would buy bullshit exercise devices, attend megachurches in the hope of hearing god’s voice or attend filthy raves in the bush. We have long felt the need to know something special and, in this era, we often feel the need to rattle the iron cage of large institutions. We feel that the medical orthodoxy just doesn’t understand us, and so we fight back by believing in herbs or colloidal silver. Which are generally administered by someone who appears to really understand us.

The thing is, medical practitioners do have less time to understand us. With maldistribution of GPs, a decreased availability of bulk-billed services and an average consult time of just 12 minutes, it’s very easy to feel like we’re not understood.  It’s very easy to feel understood by the naturopathic outsider who seems to want to know all about our complex internal workings.

But it’s very easy to mistake a little compassion for good medical advice. This tendency to be treated as unique and better-than-the-rest is a very natural human flaw. We just seem to have forgotten that we produced the tedious glory of science to guard against such self-interest.

It is our old desire to be worshipped as individuals coupled with our newer neoliberal character to be marketed to as individuals that helps us swallow gingko-whatchamacallit. It is our terrible disdain for scientific method and our faith in ourselves that helps Blackmores’ share price rise.

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