May 15 2015

The Meddling Prince

Context is important. If a celebrity promotes a good cause, such as Michael J. Fox raising awareness about Parkinson’s disease, then that is considered altruism and charity. If, however, they promote something with which you disagree, then they are exploiting their celebrity.

I find this analogous to many legal and political claims. In the legal context, if you can’t win on the merits, then argue the law. In politics, if you oppose a law then you can challenge it based on state’s rights or as a constitutional purist. I am not opposed to these concepts – I just want to point out that often such arguments are used selectively when it is really the substance that is unwanted.

I am not decrying the use of celebrity itself. Celebrities have a right to advocate for whatever they want, and their celebrity will lend power to their advocacy. I do think that in general the public should not give weight to celebrity itself. They should be, in fact, more skeptical if celebrity is being used to support a claim. I also respect celebrities who use their power for good, and I am free to publicly criticize those who use it for “evil.” Indulge me while I engage in the latter.

Prince Charles  definitely, in my opinion, uses his celebrity, and his royal stature, for ill when he advocates for his pet project, so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM or sCAM, if you like). He has unfortunately become enamored of homeopathy, supplements, and all things alternative. He has also used his considerable influence to put his thumb on the scale, rather than let scientists and experts do their job.

That’s not surprising, as the entire alternative medicine movement is about putting a giant thumb on the scale. CAM is a marketing concept, a brand, used to sell health care nonsense to the public and to carve out a double standard where the usual standards of science, ethics, and professionalism are not required. Proponents try to change the rules of scientific evidence, and have been successful in passing laws that literally remove CAM from the burden of adhering to the standard of care.

Prince Charles formed his Foundation for Integrated Health in 1993 in order to lobby for the inclusion of health fraud, I mean CAM, into the national health service. It closed in 2010 under allegations of fraud.

He also started his own brand of snake oil – Dutchy Originals. Professor Edzard Ernst, an expert in CAM, criticized his “detox tincture” as being based on “superstition and quackery.” This did not enamor the prince of the professor, which may have had a negative effect on Ernst’s career at the University of Exeter.

In addition to lobbying for dubious health care, having his own brand of snake oil, and fighting against professors who do actual scientific research, Prince Charles was apparently able to directly influence government policy. The so-called “black spider” letters have recently been released, which document Prince Charles successfully influencing Prime Minister Tony Blair over CAM issues. MSN reports:

The four-page letter seeks to summarise a recent meeting between Charles and Mr Blair, in which the prince suggests that they had both agreed the Brussels directive was “a sledgehammer to crack a nut” and the Prime Minister had “rightly asked me what could be done about it”.

Writing in March 2005, Mr Blair defends the directive as “sound” but adds that he agrees its proposed implementation is “crazy”. He adds: “We can do quite a lot here: we will delay implementation for all existing products to 2001; we will take more of the implementation upon ourselves.”

Charles also promoted to Blair The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council, which received a £1.1m grant from the Department of Health. Blair further assured Prince Charles that his Foundation for Integrated Health would be consulted in helping to decide government action.

The letters clearly indicate the strong influence Prince Charles had on UK policy regarding CAM.

The European Union directive on supplements may have been imperfect, but it was a legitimate attempt to regulate vitamins, minerals, and products marketed as supplements within the EU. It was attacked by CAM proponents because it might have made some products accountable for what they contained. It also questioned the sale of herbal drugs as if they were food supplements. Of course the industry did not want to be regulated, and so they campaigned against the directive, with the cheery support of their fellow in the industry, Prince Charles.

This is similar to efforts in the US to regulate the supplement industry more effectively. Such efforts are vigorously opposed by the industry through their champion, Orin Hatch.


It, of course, does strike me as anachronistic that by virtue of birth alone a person will be deemed “royal,” granting them automatic celebrity and influence in the government. Still, I could applaud if one at least used such dubious celebrity for good purposes.

Prince Charles is using his royal celebrity to essentially be a super snake oil salesman, and to use his influence with the government to make it easier for snake oil salesman in general.

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