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March 03, 2007

Misinformation and Misregulation

I've observed that about 3/4 of our reporting to date here on Aromaconnection has been to counter misinformation.  Misinformation that not only ill-informs the public, but gravely threatens the natural aromatic products industry, especially small business. Regulations written in secret without public input could hamstring the efforts of the indie artisan natural perfumer and small natural products business as well as the end user, and deal crushing blows on down the supply chain to the indigenous producer of raw aromatic materials and extracts.  Ironic that on the one hand the UN Industrial Development Organization has funded research and development of essential oil crops, while the other regulatory fist bangs the legislative gavel that will ban or restrict the use of some of those same botanical extracts through agencies responsible for setting standards, such as IFRA and RIFM.  This sweeping move, is now effectively germinating in the IFRA 40th amendment. This amendment stunned the natural aromatics community with its wide-ranging list of natural fragrance materials to be removed from the palette of currently-available natural raw materials for perfume and cosmetic use.  Reporting and discussion spearheaded by Cropwatch resulted in an online petition urging IFRA members to boycott, which petition (having gathered over 700 signatures) has now been submitted to IFRA.  The latest from IFRA is that they believe that the benefits of synthetic fragrance outweighs the use of natural fragrance materials, making the frightening and controversial revision of its code now appear to be a slam dunk.         

Next, our community was outraged at the bad science published in the NEJM linking gynecomastia in prepubescent boys to lavender and tea tree in lotions and wash-off products like shampoo and soap. This flawed paper led to a media frenzy essentially recommending discontinuance of any products containing lavender and tea tree essential oils. Robert Tisserand, noted aromatherapy guru, renowned essential oil safety expert and author presented his challenge to the article, as did the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association who actually called for a retraction of the claims made by the article regarding Tea Tree.  There can be little doubt that the science was flawed, yet we see no hastening from the medical community to right their wrong. Nor do we see the mainstream media behaving as real journalists and showing the other superior, well-reasoned side of the coin.

Then, I questioned a poorly written syndicated article by Judy Foreman that hit several newspapers, including the New York Times and LA Times claiming that aromatherapy benefits are hard to prove.  Ms Foreman could offer no documented research, which she claimed supported this assertion when I contacted her. She also did not respond to my questions whether the neuroscientist she consulted was an appropriate expert in the use of essential oils in therapy, since I found no research citing essential oils in the database of the Monell Chemical Senses Center  the corporate-sponsored research institute where he works.  I also offered a challenge to the aromatherapy community at that time to help sort out the reason that aromatherapy is so poorly depicted and even ridiculed in mainstream media.  Aromatherapists need to heed the wake-up call . . .

There could be a sinister and more disturbing explanation linking all of this, and an excellent paper (PDF) by Herbalist Jonathan Treasure may help us better understand what's going on.  He takes us through the legacy of the political suppression of herbal medicine from the time of the Rockefeller-financed Flexner Report on Medical Education that dealt the killing blow to botanical medical schools of the early 1900's and solidified the authority of the AMA, allied with the emerging pharmaceutical companies up to today.  Treasure also points out the irony that current political leaders are 'arrogantly anti-science . . .to the absurd point of advocating creationist ideologies . . . ".  In this excellent treatise, Treasure rightly recognizes the dangers facing herbal medicine (the birth mother of aromatherapy and essential oil use as medicine).  Now, medical science has achieved a stranglehold of authority that can demand that their "gold standard" of clinical trial data be imposed upon herbal research, relegating herbal medicine but a poor stepchild, rather than the rightful place as founding father of all medicine.  Treasure charges such oft-used databases like MedLine of "pseudo-scientific epiphenomenon that I call the 'mainstream manufacture of misinformation' about herbal medicine."  I, as well, have oft lamented the thrust that some of our better-known herbal educational institutions are embracing the 'scientific method' and reducing herbal medicine to 'complimentary' or 'integrative', which certainly makes herbal medicine the subservient slave to the expanding and powerful Medica-Pharmica-Insurica trifecta.

Treasure sees hope in the movement for open access to scientific publications, which subject will be covered here more in depth.   

Posted by Blogmistress on March 3, 2007 in Aromatherapy, Regulatory Issues, Research | Permalink


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Misinformation, misregulation and scientism do indeed seem to be recurring themes today, certainly for herbal medicine, aromatherapy and nutritional medicine. This is perhaps less a conscious conspiracy than it is a conspiracy of coinciding financial and reductionist interests, although conscious conspiracies clearly play a part. Jonathan Treasure makes a very valuable contribution in his article, and it is interesting to hear confirmation that Google is now rivalling Medline as a medical information resource. However, I am less certain that this necessarily means a more level playing field for herbal or aromatic medicine, since Google can also be a source of considerable misinformation - certainly for essential oils. However, there are clearly strong trends that point to a considerable lessening of the chemical/corporate/scientist status quo. These include the re-emergence of a belief in nature, the environmental movement, evidence-based science, and a hunger for transparency. Having a message, and getting this message heard is only a first step, but it's a hugely important one.

Robert Tisserand

Posted by: Robert Tisserand | Mar 4, 2007 7:35:03 PM

As always, thanks for your insight, Robert. There is a move in the U.S. Congress at the moment to require all scientific research data and conclusions be available and public. Of course, it's going to get heavy pressure from the pharmaceutical and chemical lobbyists in an attempt to defeat it, and a miracle if it ever comes to the floor for a vote. On the one hand, all this transparency would be good . . . however, it also means one will have to sift equally through bad as well as good science to ultimately (and hopefully) get to the truth. I think this is what we call the "bitter with the sweet."

Posted by: Marcia Elston | Mar 5, 2007 1:40:16 PM

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