The Consumer’s Bill of Rights, Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of a series of posts regarding the Consumer’s Bill of Rights! This post will go over Point 1, the Right to Safety, as that number was skipped during Part 1. (This was because I had already written quite a bit and I was too lazy to change it, so I left it as it is. Part 1 can be found here.) Here’s a refresher on what the Consumer Bill of Rights is, before we get started:

  1. The Right to Safety: to be protected against the marketing of goods that are hazardous to health or to life.
  2. The Right to be Informed: to be protected against fraudulent, deceitful, or grossly misleading information, advertising, labeling, or other practices, and to be given the facts needed to make informed choices.
  3. The Right to Choose: to be assured, when ever possible, access to a variety of produces and services at competitive prices, and in those industries in which competition is not workable and government regulation is substituted, an assurance of safety quality and service at fair prices.
  4. The Right to be Heard: to be assured that consumer interests will receive full and sympathetic consideration in the formulation of government policy, and fair and expeditious treatment in its administrative tribunal.

As consumers, we all want to know whether our products are safe. This is especially important in medicine, because, well, we’re taking these products either to stay healthy or to get back to being healthy. We don’t want them to hurt us, or even worse, kill us. That sort of defeats the whole purpose of taking health products.

Now how does that relate to quack medicine? After all, they’ll only sell something if it were safe… right?

Let me tell you the story of amygdalin, which in modified form is known as laetrile or Vitamin B17.

Amygdalin's chemical structure. FEAR THE CHEMICAL BONDS. FEAR IT!

Amygdalin’s chemical structure. FEAR THE CHEMICAL BONDS. FEAR IT!

Amygdalin was initially derived from bitter almonds (hence the name, which comes from the Greek for “almond”). It is also found in other plants in the genus Prunus, most notably in the pits of apricots and black cherries. If you crush the apricot pit, you can extract this chemical.

Such a sweet, innocent pit, sitting in between such delicious fruits. How can this not be a good thing?

Such a sweet, innocent pit, sitting in between such delicious fruits. How can this not be a good thing?

It is not the same as laetrile. While it shares part the same chemical structure as amygdalin, laetrile is a patented semi-synthetic chemical.

Laetrile's chemical structure. Similar to amygdalin but not the same.

Laetrile’s chemical structure. Similar to amygdalin but not the same.

Laetrile (or Vitamin B17, named as such because its inventor wanted to capitalize on the vitamin craze and hoped that by naming it as such, there would be no need to go through the FDA for new drug testing and approval) was marketed as a cancer cure in the 1950s. Even in the modern day, people think that laetrile can cure and/or prevent cancer. You can buy it on Amazon in pretty little tablets, and people are giving it glowing reviews, crediting the chemical for curing their cancerA World Without Cancer has advice on how to get as much Vitamin B17 as possible to prevent cancer, and claims that “Vitamin B-17 is one of the main sources of food in cultures such as the Eskimos, the Hunzas, the Abkasians and many more”, stating that these groups have never developed cancer (which isn’t true by the way, see here for the Eskimos. I tried to find accurate data for the Hunzas or the Abkasians, but Google-fu’s failing me, as all it’s turning up is advertisements for laetrile)There’s a page promoting Vitamin B17, calling it a “story not approved by orthodox medicine”, and claims that the medical establishment is fighting hard to keep this from the market because of politics and because Big Pharma doesn’t want to lose their profits. Another page advertising laetrile states that the FDA has banned sales of this “miracle” drug (because let’s face it, it’s not a supplement, but a drug) even though it’s “perfectly natural and safe” and recommends people to purchase it in Mexico or eat apricot kernels (consuming at least 24 and up to 40 of these kernels a day!) or eat berry and apple seeds.

Wait. The last page states that the FDA banned sales of laetrile, and mentions that people can’t claim that the drug can cure cancer.

Why? If this was really the miracle drug that can cure cancer, wouldn’t we be all over it by now? I mean, seriously, we’re spending millions and millions of dollars in cancer research trying to find better treatments and/or a cure, and this is just our tax dollars from the National Cancer Institute. Cancer is complicated, yo! If laetrile really could cure cancer, we’d be able to use that money to, I don’t know, spend it on AIDS research perhaps? It’d be a huge savings a year, we wouldn’t have to subject people to radiation and chemo, and no one would ever die from cancer, ever! Plus, that’s one of the big health problems facing humans solved, and doctors would be quite happy to recommend it and use it on their patients, because who wants to put someone through unnecessary suffering if this cheap, miracle drug was just sitting in that apricot pit left over from lunch? Am I right?

Something doesn’t sound right.

If we had the cure from cancer in apricots the entire time, we’d be using it. We wouldn’t be spending money researching for cancer cures, we’d be using it on something else. Doctors don’t want to put people through unnecessary treatment, it wouldn’t be worth the additional risk for just a small sliver of benefit. If we can cure cancer without all of the risks that surgery and radiation and chemo have, we’d be using it, because honestly, doctors aren’t evil. They want to keep us healthy, and they don’t want to put us through more risk than we need to be to do it.

So if that’s the case, why has it been rejected by the medical community and banned for sale in the United States by the FDA?

Does it have something to do with the fact that metabolizing laetrile creates hydrogen cyanide, which, uh, yeah, is a poison that can kill you?

Oh yeah. I guess I should have mentioned that part first. Eating apricot pits can cause cyanide poisoning. Really. Apricot pits, sold in the US as a snack imported from Pakistan, have been withdrawn from stores in the US because eating one bag of those pits (8 oz worth) would give you twice the lethal dosage of cyanide for an adult.

And oh, yeah, it also doesn’t work outside of a Petri dish. Just saying!

So… what we’ve just seen being sold on Amazon is a bottle of cyanide poisoning waiting to happen. What the hell? How is this possible?

Marketing. Lots and lots of marketing. And media attention. And more marketing. The people behind Quackwatch (in the aforementioned link) can explain that better than I could, as a layperson studying in the biochemical field.

“But people shouldn’t be selling things that can kill us! Do they not know that they’re killing people?!”

Well, yeah, they shouldn’t. And to that end, the FDA made the right move by banning the sale of laetrile in the US. But unfortunately, laetrile is still touted as a cancer cure, and people have been getting around the ban by buying it overseas or purchasing the apricot kernels and extracting the pits to eat. The idea that laetrile can cure cancer just won’t die, and unfortunately, it’s killing people.

But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the sleek infomercials for this stuff.

As to whether they know that it’s killing people… I’m of the belief that most of the people who are touting laetrile are people who actually think that the stuff works, and that they’re unwilling to believe that it’s a poison. Or they know that it’s a poison, but try to make excuses to get around that. Many of them might have known someone with cancer who took it alongside conventional treatment and gotten well. But instead of crediting the conventional treatment, they credited the laetrile.

Yay for post hoc ergo propter hoc (shortened to just post hoc).

But not really. Actually, it’s quite unfortunate, especially for desperate cancer patients, who might not know about the dangers of laetrile until it’s too late.

Part 2 is complete. Stay tuned for Part 3, sooner or later.

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