safety

Blowing a raspberry

Imagine there is a door in front of you. There is a person standing next to the door:

"Hey there, pudgy, do you want to be thin and beautiful without having to do any exercise at all? All you have to do is hand me some cash and step through that door there."

This person goes on to explain that if you step through the magic door, you will step out of the other side with a perfect, slim figure. You won't need to change your diet or do any exercise. You just need to walk through the door. They show you some glossy before and after pictures. There are pictures of beautiful, smiling people holding out the waistbands of their old elasticated tracksuit bottoms, so you can see just how much more skinny they are now.

There is a slight rumble from behind the door. You ask what is behind it.

"Oh, we don't know. But honestly, it'll work." 
"But is it safe?" you ask. 

"Oh yes, its perfectly safe" is the reply. "All you need to do is go through that door, and you will definitely lose all of that stubborn weight and absolutely nothing bad will happen to you whatsoever. Now if you'll just hand me your money there, that'll be great."   

Sounds great, right? You excitedly take a step towards the door.

But before you step through the door, you take a moment to consider what might be behind it.  You don't know, and the person telling you to go through the door doesn't know what's in there either. No one has studied what's behind the door. There are no photos and  no videos of what's in there. All you have is this person's word that it is safe, and it will work. 

Broadly speaking, there are three possibilities of what's behind the door:

  1. Nothing. Its just a room. You go through the door, and nothing happens. You don't lose any weight, but you have lost your money. 
  2.  It works. You step through the door and emerge as a smiling, happy, beautiful, skinnier you. You quickly run home to find some horrible grey tracksuit so you can smugly show everyone how marvellous you are now you're skinny.
  3.  Something harmful is in there. Maybe there is a big pile of dog poo right behind the door, and you are destined to step in it, which will be mildly unpleasant for you. Or the door could be perched on top of a cliff, below which is a mesh of razor blades that will cut you into little pieces. Worse than that, perhaps Piers Morgan is through there.

Do you step through the door? 

Now, I really do want to lose weight. But I also don't like being deceived, and I really don't like being harmed. I also really don't like Piers Morgan. 

All of which brings me nicely on to this season's most fashionable weight- loss aid, Raspberry ketone. Its the chemical contained in raspberries that makes them smell nice. Its widely used as a flavouring and fragrance agent in foods, which begs the question: if its so effective, why don't we already lose weight when we eat food that it is in?

You've probably heard about it already. By which I mean that you've probably seen someone on Twitter tweeting about how they lost 3000 kg using raspberry ketone, along with a handy link to a website where you can buy it. You've also then probably seen the follow up tweets, that go something along the lines of "Urgh, my account has been hacked. I've changed my password now, sorry."

And there's the first warning sign. People who make real medicines which work don't tend to need to resort to hacking people's social media accounts in a desperate bid to get people to buy their wares. You don't see Pfizer or Glaxo, for all their faults, hacking into random peoples' accounts and mass tweeting "My cancer is in remission thanks to Drug X. Buy it here!!!!". Its not a particularly ethical way to sell healthcare products.

Putting all of that aside, is there any evidence that raspberry ketones work as a weight loss aid?

In short: no, except for 18 mice and a difference of about 5 grams at most. Which also means there is no evidence that it is safe. There are no human studies out there at all. All of this hype about it is based on the fact that its chemical structure looks a bit like two other chemicals (capsaicin and synephrine) which might have some effects on weight loss.

That's a bit of a stretch. Human bodies are complicated things, and we can't always predict how they will react to medicines. Even when we theoretically think that something might work for good, plausible reasons, there's no guarantee that it will (COX-2 inhibitors come to mind as an example). Marketing raspberry ketone as a foolproof weight loss aid just because it looks a bit like some other chemicals is like finding a random key on a street and expecting it to work without fail on your front door, just because it looks a bit similar to your front door key. 

If you were to decide to take raspberry ketone, you would essentially be walking through that door. You might lose a bit of weight, or you might not. You might be harmed, or you might not. There's just no way of knowing right now.

Hxxx


The Not-So-Wise Owls

You might have noticed that Holland and Barrett, the high street's most proliferative purveyor of pointless supplements, homeopathic, and herbal medicines are in the midst of a rather odd marketing campaign, called #AskOurOwls.

*Gratuitous Fluffy Animal Pic* Meet Willow. Willow is a fully grown, 10 year old south African Owl who lives in Kielder Forest. Willow does not purport to be an expert in complementary and alternative medicines, but he does have very soft feathers. Willow would like to make it known that he does not condone the actions of Holland and Barrett owls

*Gratuitous Fluffy Animal Pic* Meet Willow. Willow is a fully grown, 10 year old south African Owl who lives in Kielder Forest. Willow does not purport to be an expert in complementary and alternative medicines, but he does have very soft feathers. Willow would like to make it known that he does not condone the actions of Holland and Barrett owls

#AskOurOwls means you can ask any question about a Holland and Barrett product, and if their staff can't answer your question, you get 20% off in store. This is accompanied by a kawaii cute animated advert featuring bunnies, hedgehog, and other adorable woodland creatures. Because natural remedies are always totally cute, safe and innocuous, right? And presumably because everyone who works there is in actual fact a shape-shifting owl cavorting as a human. Its like David Icke stuff, but with more feathers. 

In the words of the ad agency who designed it:

"The campaign aims to demonstrate Holland & Barrett’s USP of considerable staff expertise, endorsing the fact that every Holland & Barrett store within the UK has had an officially qualified associate to give advice on all own label supplements, vitamins, healthy foods and weight management products"

Now, I've lost count of the number of enquiries I've dealt with because of Holland and Barrett. These enquiries are usually along the lines of "My patient has bought <insert Holland and Barrett product> and wants to know if they're safe to use with their other medicines." In some of these cases, patients have presented with over £40 worth of herbal medicines etc, and have then been told that no, they can't take it, either because it will interact with their medicines, or because it isn't suitable to be taken by someone with their medical problems.

I have no idea what the Holland and Barrett in-house staff training consists of, but I'm not sure what part of it would allow someone to buy multiple, expensive remedies beforethey know if they are safe for them to use. Its not only a dangerous strategy, but its really very poor customer service, and doesn't do much to 'demonstrate considerable staff expertise'.

Anecdotally, I have heard that in some areas, Holland and Barrett employees have been known to send patients to a nearby pharmacy to ask if they are able to take a product. Whilst this at least demonstrates an awareness of their knowledge limitations, its also pretty inconvenient for the customer to have to traipse in and out of different shops, and i should imagine pretty irritating for the pharmacist, who is having to do H&B's work for them. And believe me, these sorts of enquiries aren't always easy to do, and can be very time consuming. 

So that's not all that encouraging for their #AskOurOwls scheme, is it? And it is a really quite bizarre strategy. If I ask a question about whether a product is safe for me to take, and they can't answer it, I can't really see how offering me a discount on something that I don't know is safe or not would help.

Of course the skeptical community understandably used this opportunity to Ask Some Owls some reasonable questions about where the evidence is for many of the products they sell, why they sell homeopathy when there is literally nothing in it, why they promote detox products when there is no scientific evidence for detox, why they sell high dose vitamins when there is some evidence that they may increase cancer risk etc. And no answers flowed in at all. I ask three questions, and got no response, then sent a Tweet about how I had gotten no response. This did attract a -very curt and actually pretty damn rude- reply from Holland and Barrett demanding to know if it was a question or not.

Funnily enough, after being bombarded with questions about their selling of quackery, the terms and conditions now read that the offer does not apply to questions asked via Facebook or Twitter. I have no idea at all whether these terms were the same at the start of the campaign (do let me know if you know), but it would seem very strange indeed if they have launched a campaign centred around a hashtag but which is not for use on social media. It would sort of suggest that they was actually being rather misleading, or just very careless in the original advertising campaign. Or, of course, that they hadn't quite thought through the consequences of encouraging people to ask questions about remedies that have no basis in science or evidence. Presumably they think that us mean skeptic-types will be so overwhelmed by their wondrous array of snake oil remedies that we will turn to mush and be unable to think of a question in store. 

Let's see what that ad agency says again, shall we?

"The brand strategy extends to social media, where customers can engage with Holland& Barrett staff via Twitter to answer relevant health questions. By using the hashtag, #askourowls, customers are directed back to the brand."

Suspicious, non? And lets just think about this strategy for a moment. They are encouraging people to ask them health questions in less than 140 characters. Given that people are complex, and may have multiple health issues and be on many different medicines, this seems a somewhat cavalier strategy.

Then again, Holland and Barrett are home to some other really quite bizarre offers as well. What on earth is going on with that buy one, get the other for 1p thing? Save everyone the bother of having to faff about with change and just do a plain old BOGOF, for goodness sake. Or, even better, how about not encouraging pointless polypharmacy with multi-buy offers in an area where they are clinically inappropriate and potentially even dangerous?  

So, next time you're passing a Holland and Barrett store, take a moment or two to drop in, and ask them for the evidence. If they can't provide you with any, then enjoy your 20% off- you should be able to find something to buy there- they do sell Bombay mix after all, which is approximately 50% more baked than their #AskOurOwls campaign ever was. Do let me know how you got on, if you do get a chance to ask a question.

You can read some more about how the #AskOurOwls campaign went wrong for H&B but right for skeptics here, and the sort of non-answer Slipp Digby got here.  

Hxxx

UPDATE: interestingly, a mere few hours after I published this post, I got an @reply from Holland and Barrett on Twitter, promising me that someone was looking into my enquiry about acai and i would hear from a nutritionist soon. At the same time, they were merrily sending out requests for follows so that they could DM answers to many other people who had asked similar questions. However, I've never heard anything since, or been asked to follow them to get a DM response-this is now 3 days after they told me someone would contact me.

Putting aside all the other problems with this campaign, this is just utterly terrible customer service. My job involves me dealing with often very complex enquiries, and it would maybe take me three days maximum to do a complex enquiry involving a full research strategy, medical literature searches, critical appraisal of multiple papers, and to compose an answer. I would, of course, acknowledge the enquiry immediately and let the enquirer know of any delays- its common courtesy.

I can't help but notice that on their Twitter feed they do appear to be answering other questions about their products using their Timeline. So why are they using DMs to answer any which question the efficacy of their products?  

I've decided to give them another chance, however, and have just asked them another, very specific question, which would take a pharmacist maybe 30mins-1 hour to answer fully:



We'll see how long that takes to get a response, shall we?

(Update: I never did hear back at all)

e-cigarettes: accidents waiting to happen

We all know smoking is bad for us, and we all know that giving it up is a good idea. E-cigarettes have been around for a good few years now, and they seem to be the answer to a lot of our prayers to some people: That lovely nicotine hit, without having to traipse outside, and without any of the nasty tar or other chemicals that makes smoking bad for you.

There's currently a bit of a kerfuffle going on about them as the EU look into tighter regulation of them. A quick search on Twitter reveals lots of folk stating that they save thousands of lives, are much safer than other pharmacological smoking cessation methods, and are totally safe, therefore shouldn't be banned by the EU. Others have covered the fact that e-cigarettes are unregulated, that they may actually contain chemicals and ingredients which can be carcinogenic, that they might have adverse safety effects so I'm not going to cover all of those potential issues here. .But there is one aspect of their use which I think is easily forgotten about, but has the potential to be very worrying.

It seems that e-cigarettes come in a variety of forms- none of which are regulated. Some are disposable, some have refillable cartridges, and some require refilling with a liquid. There are even some sites which encourage mixing your own nicotine liquid: a complicated process requiring mixing a nicotine concentrate with a flavouring and a diluent using a dropper.

Now, as a fairly young pharmacist (or so I keep telling myself), it has been a long time since I compounded any medicines myself, but I do remember doing so in university and I have a pretty good idea of how to work out and produce mixtures. I'm a keen baker, so used to following recipes which can be complex at times. And yet a quick glance at some of the mixing guides for nicotine liquids makes me worried. They look complicated enough for a pharmacist like me to follow, never mind anyone else. Milligrams, drops, milliliters, colours, parts etc are all terms used on the same instruction sheet, and the medicines safety part of me is crumpled and crying in a corner, wailing "HIGH RISK COMPOUNDING PROCEDURE!" loudly to anyone who will listen. And yet, because these things aren't considered a medicine, anyone can sell this stuff, and anyone can buy it. There are risks at every step of producing these mixes: not understanding the instructions, not accurately measuring amounts, mixing up the different liquids, storage of the liquids, spillages etc etc. Some sites even suggest using a syringe- complete with needle- to inject the nicotine solution into devices. A little bit of me is dying inside. 

Even the ready made liquids are problematic enough. They come in little eye-dropper type bottles, and are often pleasantly flavoured. In short, they're probably rather attractive to children. 

In my day job, which partly involves advising on poisoning cases, I have come across quite a few cases where nicotine liquid intended for use in e-cigarettes has been accidentally ingested. A lot of people don't know that nicotine itself can be horribly toxic, particularly for children. It only takes a small amount orally to get some pretty nasty, potentially fatal effects. And yet, freely available to buy without any regulation at all, a variety of attractively flavoured and packaged -and really highly concentrated- nicotine liquids are sitting ready to be bought by eager punters. You can even buy multi-packs of large bottles of highly, highly concentrated nicotine liquid. They don't even have child-resistant tops on them- and why should they, as they're not even considered a medicine? The websites selling these things aren't particularly clear about the dangers of them- again, why should they be, when they're trying to sell them as a safe alternative to smoking?

I've had a quick look around the medical literature and as of yet there is very little information published on this aspect of e-cigarette usage. And that's part of the problem: the technology has been widely adopted without a thorough understanding of all the different aspects of its safety. Even if they were tightly regulated and highly safe, this aspect of accidents with refills will still remain, and in my opinion it is only a matter of time until there are some very serious accidents of this nature. 

So, whilst e-cigarettes might be a useful ally in giving up smoking for some people, we really need to put some thought into the safety issues surrounding them, and not just the obvious ones which might affect the person using them.

All of this is without even considering the fact that using them can sometimes make you look a bit daft, especially the ones that light up at the end like a pretend-y cigarette. Others, frankly, look like "discreet" vibrating devices for ladies. You'd be better off with those yummy candy cigarettes from the eighties, if you ask me- they look more like an actual cigarette than most of the e-cigs and they're a whole lot cheaper too. 

Hxxx 
 


Minor Update (2nd May 2015): Some time has passed since I wrote this, and I think my fears have started to be borne out in the evidence. Poisons Centres around the world are starting to report evidence of toxicity. Deaths in both humans and animals are being reported. Its a real shame that it came to this, but hopefully with proper regulation the safety of e-cigarettes can be improved.