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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comments
2 years ago
Posted by AutismNewsBeat

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck..

2 years ago
Posted by JIB

The man is not a Quack. The last Doctor my wife went to regarding her Thyroid was the top in Chicago according to this publication. He and several failed to diagnose my wife with hashimoto Thyroiditis. Mercola helped my wife identify what was wrong and how to manage it. The man changed her life and made our lives together what is once was before the effects of her disease crippled her. I also do a lot of heavy weight training and had severe joint issues. I stopped taking excessive amounts of three supplements after his recommendation for a supplement that all but cured my joint pain.

2 years ago
Posted by quackquack

He is absolutely the worst kind of quack and snake-oil salesman!! Do you REALLY think that your doctor doesn't want the best outcome for you? REALLY??? I'll stick with my MD (no DO for me please) and her scentifically proven medical advice over this jerk off or that other quack "Dr." Oz anyday. And Mercola's "girlfriend" is a 40 year old nut-job. Birds of a feather people.

2 years ago
Posted by nyscof

Apparently this reporter doesn't know how to navigate the science literature. It would serve the reader to know that Dr. Mercola has science to back him up and people like Dr. Stephen Barret do not.

We don't need to know the color of his clothes or the archetectural details of his office. We need hard science.

2 years ago
Posted by NaturalCures

Beware of people trying to make you healthy so that you can avoid expensive doctor visits, expensive meds, and expensive operationsl. BEWARE!!!!!

2 years ago
Posted by Edith Prickly

Beware of people online hucksters trying to make you healthy afraid of real doctors so that you can avoid expensive doctor visits avoid getting properly diagnosed, waste your money on expensive medsuseless snake oil treatments, and need expensive operations when believing the quack grifter causes you to ignore a real illness until it’s too late to treat it less invasively. BEWARE!!!!!

FTFY

2 years ago
Posted by Edith Prickly

Sorry for the HTML fail above. The point I was trying to make is that this guy is a completely shameless huckster who is putting people's health at risk by deliberately trying to frighten them off from mainstream medicine and then lining his own pockets selling useless quack treatments instead. He may have been a legit doctor at one point but obviously realized he could make a lot more money by telling people fairy tales about "natural cures" online, thereby avoiding the need for tedious office visits with complaining patients and more importantly, escaping any responsibility when his bad advice doesn't work.

2 years ago
Posted by michael.h

As long as the FDA is a Wholly Owned Subsidiary of pharma, those who be believe that conventional drugs are safe and effective are in jeopardy. The medical journals are just an extension of a very flawed, at best, if not outright scientifically and ethically corrupt system, which only perpetuates itself.

Mercola is not perfect, but going to Barrett and Gorski, Oy vey. Mashuganas they are.

Mercola is more right than he is wrong.

2 years ago
Posted by mary_aspinwall

Mercola asks people to look at possible causes of ill health and make lifestyle changes to prevent illness. His success in spreading this message is entirely due to the internet. Main stream media is owned by huge corporations and receives a large portion of its income from advertising revenues. For this reason is highly unlikely to upset either its owners or its patrons, including pharmaceutical companies. Mercola goes where MSM dare not tread.
Those who are quick to label Mercola a quack would do well to see how so called "real doctors" are faring. Let's look at a JAMA report on iatrogenic illness (illness caused by medical treatment) which estimates (conservatively) that it causes 225,000 deaths per year and so constitutes the third leading cause of death in the United States, after deaths from heart disease and cancer.
Most conventional doctors are in an increasingly visible glass house, its time to put the stones down...

2 years ago
Posted by ColoradoNurse

Mercola is nothing less than a modern-day John R. Brinkley, the fellow who made a fortune in the 1930s transplanting goat testicles into men's scrotums. Both have gotten rich railing against science-based medicine. Who knows how many people have suffered needlessly from this sort of charlatanism.

2 years ago
Posted by TNboy

Barrett with Quackwatch; OK that's enough for me. I can't believe anything that man posts on his website. He's a paid hack for the industry. And, using him as a source for any article puts real doubt into the intentions of the writer.

I started using some of the advice of Dr. Mercola back in 2007. Not everything he proposes works for me. However, I was once a health wreck that my doctors couldn't treat with anything but drugs. I stayed sick all the time. Then I discovered the fluoridation scam quite by accident, and stopped using fluoride in any form. Dr. Mercola has been fighting against fluoridation for years. I also had my mercury amalgams replaced with a safer material. Within several weeks my health changed for the better.

Bottom line: I can't tell you how good it is to be healthy and free of the mysterious symptoms that plagued me for 25 years. Mercola isn't perfect. But, he's a heck of a lot more trustworthy than the industry hacks that made me sick in the first place.

2 years ago
Posted by StephieC

Dr. Mercola is a brilliant doctor. I, along w/my three children, was a patient of his for 7+ years. I feel very lucky to have had those experiences as I witnessed my son's successes w/his autism protocol and I experienced a great deal of healing myself. He was kind, compassionate and took the time to explain and educate which so many practitioners don't do. I think the traditional, western medical establishment including big pharma feels extremely threatened by him which creates the need to attempt to discredit him like this. So many people are waking up and realizing that something is majorly wrong/backwards/corrupt w/medical care in this country that goes far beyond health care (sick care) coverage. I think it's a safe guess that anyone referring to him as "the worst kind snake of snake oil salesman" is either in the "traditional" medical field or pharmaceutical field OR has no clue what they're talking about. And to whomever thinks, "I'll go see an MD, NOT a DO...", well enjoy the temporary band-aid your "MD" likely slaps on whatever ails you. Documentaries like FOOD MATTERS are really helping the masses to understand how unnecessary most drugs and surgeries are and how downright crappy most "medical" advice is. Most MDs don't know jack about NUTRITION. Hello?! I had one point to a picture of a food pyramid and say, "Do that." If it wasn't for Dr. Mercola's very thorough allergy testing, my daughter and I would likely still have severe IBS/celiac issues. After years of pain, going off of gluten was all I needed. I don't blame mogst of the MDs. I think they go to medical school w/the right intentions. But the traditional medical establishment was corrupted a long time ago. You can already cure cancer, kids are dying from contaminated vaccines and so many ppl are needlessly suffering from many diseases b/c the money is not in the cure and the treatment is controlled by corrupt gov't and pharma w/the threat looming over many doctor's heads that they could lose their license if they think outside the box they were taught to practice in.
His site is a site I visit regularly and it's full of wonderful advice and great articles and the TRUTH. Lots of love

2 years ago
Posted by scienceisforsale

Chicago Mag. Credible Journalism or Pharma RAG?

"He is absolutely the worst kind of quack and snake-oil salesman!! Do you REALLY think that your doctor doesn't want the best outcome for you?........"

Hey you Quack MD! Pharma SHEEPLE Bully Thug. I WILL NEVER EVER EVER spend ONE cent for ONE second of your "MD" thuggery. You are a worthless piece of TRASH. You are arrogant and useless to anyone who desires HEALTH and WELLNESS. Go ahead, spew your satanic nonesense. The sheeple are waking up. Get on board or shut your pie hole.

I'm so sick and tired of you MD beasts defending the atrocious disease management price gouging layers of FAT. Good bye, will the real scum bag Quack stand up!!! We hire you and WE FIRE you arrogant pharma beholden Quacks! Your days are numbered.

I highly recommend Dr. Mercola.

2 years ago
Posted by scienceisforsale

Chicago Mag. Credible Journalism or Pharma RAG?

"He is absolutely the worst kind of quack and snake-oil salesman!! Do you REALLY think that your doctor doesn't want the best outcome for you?........"

Hey you Quack MD! Pharma SHEEPLE Bully Thug. I WILL NEVER EVER EVER spend ONE cent for ONE second of your "MD" thuggery. You are a worthless piece of TRASH. You are arrogant and useless to anyone who desires HEALTH and WELLNESS. Go ahead, spew your satanic nonesense. The sheeple are waking up. Get on board or shut your pie hole.

I'm so sick and tired of you MD beasts defending the atrocious disease management price gouging layers of FAT. Good bye, will the real scum bag Quack stand up!!! We hire you and WE FIRE you arrogant pharma beholden Quacks! Your days are numbered.

I highly recommend Dr. Mercola.

2 years ago
Posted by Healthy DIning Chicago

He's part visionary...part quack. Problem is 99% of educated people, including me, would find it almost impossible to differentiate the info he disseminates as to which is which.

2 years ago
Posted by maiasmommy

I've seen more quacks, of the M.allard D.uck persuasion, than I've ever seen of real healers. Shame, shame, Chicago mag for not revealing that Dr. Barrett's "business" location is his shabby basement as a paid hack for a zombie allopathic predator cult.

2 years ago
Posted by thetruthergirl

How can you trust the FDA when their food safety czar, Michael Taylor, is a former Monsanto lobbyist? Just to give one example.

2 years ago
Posted by elive

Dear Chicago Magazine and Bryan Smith,

Worst case of one sided journalism I've seen in a long while.

Did you ever take journalism 101 or do you not have a degree in the particular subject (I'm guessing the latter)

First rule *I* learned in my introductory class was that you interview the person/subject (in this case Dr. Mercola) and then you interview people both FOR and against him. But YOU (one sided unfair journalism) only interviewed people (plural!) against him!

I am thoroughly disgusted by this magazine. Between that and the ads for escorts (oops I mean personal ads for rich dating companions) in the back it's really gone downhill almost as bad as your poor excuse for journalism. Go back to school if you've ever been at all.

Funny all the ads seem to be against your piece. No surprise.

2 years ago
Posted by DrRexDexter

I would weigh into this one, this way. Dr Mercola challenges us to investigate further, something one should do regardless of which "Authority" is making statements. Failure to do this has given us the mess we have Politically, Economically, Medically, and Legally in this country we are now challenged to fix.

Is Mercola always right? To say so is the same "lock-step" pattern he alludes is a problem with "Traditional Medicine". However, the quote "Real Medicine really work...", is one of the most inept "blanket statements" that a "Traditional Physician" could have chosen to make in defense of the bloated Medical Industry.

(A) Actually and often, it DOESN'T. When you see the commercials, 1/3 of the time explains the benefits, 2/3+ of the time is devoted to the potential problems. Odds are, the drug in question could end up recalled and/or the basis of a class action suit.

(B) In fact, under the guidance of Big Pharma and Food Giants like ADM and Monsanto, Paramilitary raids, wherein no arrests are actually made are being carried out all the time, most recently one against California's Largest Organic Food Company, Organic Pastures. There were no specific complaints, no violations of any Health Code, and any conduct that would need to be called into question. None the less, property was destroyed, people detained and released, and products and animals seized.

It's time "WE The People" realize that we should not blindly trust ANYONE with regards our Health. If we want to achieve and maintain that health, it's likely going to require a learning curve and some responsibility on our parts.

2 years ago
Posted by andia

This article has nothing to do with honest reporting . It has defaming bias of Dr. Mercola vast achievements in the field of natural health maintenance and supplementation. I strongly believe it was written by special order of big pharma interest groups. Dr. Mercola has always the right answers but if he is wrong sometimes he admits it in his writings. I follow his advices and confront his ideas with other sources. Most of them I agree with. Many people who like to take care of themselves and want to avoid trouble in dealings with very costly and overpriced health industry, hospitals, etc, should at least understand how the body function, what toxic materials should be avoided in this modern world (fluoride, mercury), be aware of supplementation, nutrition and medication. You could find all answers in Dr. Mercola articles. I use his healthy shop for my own benefit and I am confident it works. By the way, there is no problem at all with refunds. Dr. Mercola is a man of honor, very passionate and reporting very honestly. I wish all of our media are free and independent and broadcast as frankly, directly, fairly and openly as Dr. Mercola.

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