Dr. Mercola: Visionary or Quack?

Americans’ growing interest in alternative medicine has helped turn suburban Chicago doctor Joseph Mercola into one of the most popular voices in natural health. So why does he have so many people riled up?

Photo: Taylor Castle

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The doctor is in. To reach him, you must cross the limestone-pillared entrance of his headquarters in Hoffman Estates and go past the chocolate-brown paneled walls and soothing tiled lounge, down a labyrinth of hushed halls and empty conference rooms, to the door of a spacious corner office. Two soft knocks and a person instantly recognizable to most any true believer in alternative medicine appears. The doctor is Joseph Mercola, the face, the voice, the prime mover behind one of the nation’s most heavily trafficked—and controversial—natural health websites, Mercola.com.

He may not have the mainstream name recognition or rock-star appeal of, say, Mehmet Oz (though he has twice been a guest on The Dr. Oz Show). But Mercola’s influence is nonetheless considerable. Each month, nearly two million people click to see the osteopathic physician’s latest musings on the wonders of dietary supplements and minerals (“The 13 Amazing Health Benefits of Himalayan Crystal Salt”), the marvels of alternative therapies (“Learn How Homeopathy Cured a Boy of Autism”), and his take on medical research, from vaccines (“Your Flu Shot Contains a Dangerous Neurotoxin”) to vitamin D (“The Silver Bullet for Cancer?”).

Visitors to his site are also treated to heavy doses of the contempt Mercola holds for most things traditional medicine and Big Pharma—the “medical-industrial complex,” he calls it. Many followers are almost evangelical in their support of his message. “If only the world had more Dr. Mercolas!” wrote one in the comments section for “The Thugs of the Medical World,” a Mercola.com article about drug companies. “You are a warrior sir, and your tireless, truthful, and fearless efforts to expose these criminals is much appreciated.”

Not surprisingly, the medical establishment sees things differently. Some researchers and doctors say that Mercola steers patients away from proven treatments and peddles pseudoscientific misinformation on topics such as flu shots and fluoridation. In their view, he is resurrecting old myths, such as the threat posed by mercury in dental fillings, and promoting new ones, such as the notion that microwave ovens emit harmful radiation. “The information he’s putting out to the public is extremely misleading and potentially very dangerous,” opines Dr. Stephen Barrett, who runs the medical watchdog site Quackwatch.org. “He exaggerates the risks and potential dangers of legitimate science-based medical care, and he promotes a lot of unsubstantiated ideas and sells [certain] products with claims that are misleading.”

Some of the articles on Mercola’s site, Barrett and others say, seem to be as much about selling the wide array of products offered there—from Melatonin Sleep Support Spray ($21.94 for three 0.85-ounce bottles) to Organic Sea Buckthorn Anti-Aging Serum ($22 for one ounce)—as about trying to inform. (Your tampon “may be a ticking time bomb,” he tells site visitors—but you can buy his “worry-free” organic cotton tampons for the discounted price of $7.99 for 16.) Steven Salzberg, a prominent biologist, professor, and researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, calls Mercola “the 21st-century equivalent of a snake-oil salesman.”

Mercola says that his critics are wrong on all counts. Far from dispensing dangerous misinformation or trading in conspiracy theories, as some allege, he is a champion of “taking charge of our own health,” the doctor insists—a truth teller alerting Americans to what he calls the abuses, hoaxes, and myths perpetrated by the multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical and health insurance industries.

Thermographic images, such as the one at right, show patterns of body heat. Mercola says that they can detect disease. Photo: Pasieka

He’s also undaunted by his recurring run-ins with the Food and Drug Administration. Last March, the agency slapped the doctor with its third warning to stop making what it describes as unfounded claims. Specifically, the FDA demanded that Mercola cease touting a thermographic screening he offers—which uses a special camera to take digital images of skin temperatures—as a better and safer breast cancer diagnostic tool than mammograms. (As of presstime, Mercola’s site had not removed the claims.) Mercola says that the FDA’s statements are “without merit” and has had his lawyers send a letter to the FDA telling it so. The FDA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the Better Business Bureau has tagged Mercola.com with an F rating, its lowest, due in part to customer complaints that the company doesn’t honor its 100 percent money-back guarantee. That black mark isn’t exactly the kind of thing that tends to boost revenues. Hoovers, a division of Dun & Bradstreet, estimates that the privately held Mercola.com and Mercola LLC together brought in just under $7 million in 2010. (A Mercola spokesman didn’t dispute that figure.)

But those dollars don’t reflect the extent of Mercola’s influence. According to traffic-tracking firm Quantcast, Mercola.com draws about 1.9 million unique visitors per month, each of whom returns an average of nearly ten times a month. That remarkable “stickiness” puts the site’s total visits on a par with those to the National Institutes of Health’s website. (Mercola claims his is “the world’s No. 1 natural health website,” citing figures from Alexa.com.) Mercola’s 200,000-plus “likes” on Facebook are more than double the number for WebMD. And two of his eight books—2003’s The No-Grain Diet and 2006’s The Great Bird Flu Hoax—have landed on the New York Times bestseller list.

Warrior or quack, straight shooter or charlatan, the question is the same: How has a site built on ideas so contrary to mainstream science—so radical that even some staunch alternative health advocates are uncomfortable with some of his positions—become so popular?

When I met Mercola in  his suburban office one afternoon last fall, he was pleasant, articulate, enigmatic, and—understandably, perhaps—wary. Trim and athletic, with the healthy vigor of a marathoner (which he was), the 57-year-old sported a crisp button-down, pressed khakis, and the tan of someone who winters in the tropical climes of the well-to-do (which he does).

His golden hue is but one example of his rebellion against medical orthodoxy. Because scientists have found excessive sunlight to be a likely carcinogen, dermatologists warn that there’s no such thing as a healthy tan. Mercola scoffs, arguing that sunlight is beneficial because exposure to it causes the body to create vitamin D. “I actually never take vitamin D,” he says. “I just get it from the sun.”

He even advocates something considered outright heresy to most skin doctors: the use of tanning beds. Specifically, he recommends the Mercola Vitality Home Tanning Bed—on sale at his site for $2,997 (“Incredible Deal!”), free shipping within the continental United States for a limited time, returns subject to customer-paid shipping plus a 15 percent restocking fee.

Mercola is well aware of his lightning-rod status. He actually embraces it. He did not flinch, for example, when Oz introduced him on a 2011 Dr. Oz show as “the most controversial guest I’ve ever had . . . [a man who] is being called everything from game changer to innovator, controversial to quack.” When I first asked about the mainstream critics who ridicule him, Mercola merely shook his head, as if they weren’t worth discussing.

In fact, he doesn’t need to worry much about being controversial. Not when his in-your-face denunciation of the $2.6 trillion health care industry is resonating so well with an increasingly frustrated segment of the population. With health costs zooming and no convincing plan in place to curb them, “there is public dislike of Big Pharma and many managed care and health insurance companies,” says Tom Smith, director of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Mainstream doctors may find it almost inconceivable that people could choose Mercola over accepted schools of thought. But studies show a long erosion of public confidence in medicine, Smith says. Add in the poor economy of recent years and it’s no surprise that people “are looking for treatment alternatives in general and to Mercola in particular.”

The numbers tell the story. Retail sales of vitamins have soared from $2.4 billion in 2006 to $3.4 billion in 2011, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a market research firm in Chicago. Today nearly 40 percent of American adults seek some form of alternative health care, including reiki and ayurveda, the National Institutes of Health says. They are spending roughly $30 billion a year out of pocket for visits to alternative-care physicians and on related products. And the health care industry is taking heed: Some large health insurers now cover certain treatments, such as acupuncture, that were once considered radical.

Mercola isn’t your standard alternative medicine guy, mind you. A spokesperson for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a federal agency, declined to comment about Mercola specifically. But she provided position papers that contradict several of his views—for example, on the authority of the FDA and on vaccination (more about that later).

Mercola’s distrust-heavy spin seems to have hit a particular nerve. “That’s the fundamental sales hook,” says Barrett. “That you can’t trust the government, and because I don’t trust the government, you can trust me. And a lot of people don’t trust the government for a lot of reasons.”

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