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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But the stance that tends to drive Mercola’s critics most crazy is his support of the antivaccination movement. A search of Mercola.com reveals dozens of articles and videos railing against virtually all vaccines, particularly mandatory ones for children. Among the titles: “Do NOT Let Your Child Get Flu Vaccine—9 Reasons Why.”

Mercola says he recently donated $1 million to several alternative medicine groups, including the National Vaccine Information Center, which describes itself as a “vaccine watch dog.” Part of the money, according to the group’s website, was used to pay for an ad called “Vaccines: Know the Risk,” which was shown hourly on the CBS Jumbotron in Times Square for several weeks last spring.

Mercola says he is simply trying to ask hard questions about the potential harm caused by inoculations and voice his opposition to government-imposed mandates. “There are virtually no safety studies done [on vaccines],” Mercola says. “We don’t know what the effects of combining them are. We don’t know what the long-term complications are.” He says the government and media downplay very real risks and either underreport or ignore serious adverse reactions. Meanwhile, “we don’t have the option to say no [to getting the shots]. It’s just insane what’s happening, and more and more vaccines [are coming] down the line.”

It’s one thing, Mercola’s critics say, to push unproven dietary supplements. It’s another to advocate that parents shun something that has done so much good. “When I was training 50 years ago, I saw kids who were deaf from measles, demented,” Barrett says. “Vaccines save lives and they prevent disability.”

More broadly, the CDC warns that a major drop in the number of children being vaccinated poses a threat to all Americans. That’s because when a big enough portion of the population has immunity to a certain infectious disease, its spread becomes unlikely—so-called herd immunity. Failure to immunize kids, the CDC says, could result in a return of diseases such as measles and polio that have been all but eradicated.

 

Mercola is nothing if not a gifted marketer. His site bristles with provocative headlines (“Do Drug Companies Secretly Favor a World Flu Pandemic?”) and promises of astounding breakthroughs (“Zinc Can Cure Diarrhea”). And his enormous archive of blog posts and videos on health care topics from arthritis to shingles are all free—provided you share your e-mail address. At the bottom of such articles are products from Mercola’s own line that correspond to the topics he’s just addressed. “He has applied the science of communication probably as skillfully as anyone who has ever used the Internet,” Mercola’s chief critic, Barrett, acknowledges.

This skill is no accident. Around the time Mercola began to sell products on his site, he also began to study marketing. “I read a lot of books, took a lot of courses, and started understanding the process of how to communicate information effectively.”

Among the tricks he learned was how to grab readers’ attention—the notion, for example, that “80 percent of the effectiveness of an article is based on the headline.” He also learned the power of provocation. “I would find articles that supported one position and [say] why I disagreed. I didn’t hold back, and people seemed to like that. I didn’t realize at the time that was a useful marketing principle.”

If there were any doubt about the importance of marketing to the operation, it was dispelled when I was given a quick tour of Mercola’s sprawling headquarters. The lobby of Dr. Mercola’s Natural Health Center looks like the kind of well-appointed suburban office where you’d expect vanity procedures such as face-lifts to be offered. As it turns out, only one short hallway is dedicated to patient services. “Marketing and customer service take up most of the rest,” a new-patient coordinator told me.

The medical pros on staff—a doctor, a nutritionist, and four therapists—offer treatments such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which Mercola describes as a “form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture.” Another option: thermography, the screening method with advertising claims that got Mercola into hot water with the FDA.

One key element of Mercola’s appeal—and the reason he is so confounding to some of his critics—is that plenty of the things he advocates are rooted in common sense and even good science. His site, for example, offers a thorough primer on proper hand washing to avoid spreading or catching the flu. As much as he pushes people to spend time in the sun, he also tells them to avoid getting a sunburn and even to cover up in a way that allows enough sun to get through while avoiding skin damage.

In the opinion of David Gorski, a doctor who runs a site similar to Barrett’s (ScienceBasedMedicine.org), the problem is that Mercola either vastly exaggerates preliminary research or cherry-picks studies that bolster his point of view. Gorski believes that Mercola also ignores data that prove him wrong or pushes far beyond what is scientifically sound, using scare tactics to make his point. For example, his site includes an article by a California doctor titled “HIV Does Not Cause AIDS.” Mercola posted a comment at the end of the article: “Exposure to steroids and the chemicals in our environment, the drugs used to treat AIDS, stress, and poor nutrition are possibly the real causes.”

Gorski lists a litany of Mercola’s beliefs that he says fly in the face of good science. “It’s all there,” says Gorski. “He’s antivaccine. He has promoted [someone] who believes cancers are caused by fungus. He has promoted fear-mongering about shampoo. He digs up the hoary old myth that anti-perspirants containing aluminum cause breast cancer. Just this month he is pushing this nonsense that somehow recombinant bovine growth factor in milk causes breast cancer, something for which there’s no evidence.

“Basically, if it’s ‘natural,’ it’s good,” Gorski says. “If it’s pharmaceutical, it’s evil. If anything boils his approach down to a short sound bite, that’s probably as close as I can think of.”

When I asked Mercola why the criticism against him by mainstream physicians is so harsh—and why the FDA has been on his case—he laughed. “It’s a very simple answer,” he says. “There are enormous sums of money involved. There’s this huge collusion between government and industry. They leverage the federal regulatory agencies against us to make us look like we’re breaking the law.”

He pushes treatments and theories shunned by conventional medicine, he says, because “when you understand the truth [you have a duty] to communicate that as clearly and effectively as possible. I can see things that are just obvious and clear to me. I don’t need 30 more years of science to support it. Am I wrong sometimes? Sure. Everyone’s wrong [sometimes]. . . . People call me a snake-oil salesman, of course. They’re free to do that. I don’t think there’s a justification for it.”

As for his critics, Mercola views them as “pawns” of a system in which medical journals have become an almighty arbiter of the scientific process. “It’s how physicians and health care professionals validate their approach,” he says. “Just use the journals. [That’s fine] if you can maintain objectivity and you don’t corrupt it with conflict of interest. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. These journals get corrupted. Then everyone down the line steps in and says, ‘Oh, the journals say it, the experts say it, then who am I to say differently?’ And they all fall in step.”

Salzberg strongly disagrees. “What people like Mercola sometimes ignore is that real medicines really work. They really work because they undergo very strenuous testing. . . . Medical science is constantly critiquing itself. We’re always skeptical about our own results. The purveyors of supplements and ‘alternative medicine,’ including Mercola, are actually not doing that at all.”

 

In his coolly modern office—with its polished wood floors, caramel-colored leather furniture, and dramatic lighting—Mercola tells me he’s not long for this world. That is, he won’t be sticking around for the coming cold and sunless stretches of a Chicago winter. As is the case every year at this time, he will soon be off to more agreeable latitudes. “I typically go to warm climates such as South Florida, Mexico, Miami, the Caribbean,” he explains. “My girlfriend has a home in Florida, so we stay there sometimes.” He still works every day, he says. “I just work in shorts and T-shirts.”

Of course, he also enthusiastically chases rays. But without traditional sunscreens. Those are “loaded with toxic chemicals,” states a posting on his website. According to researchers, the post continues, “nearly half of the 500 most popular sunscreen products may actually increase the speed at which malignant cells develop and spread skin cancer.”

There is an alternative, a “major breakthrough in all natural sunscreen lotions,” the site says: Dr. Mercola’s Natural Sunscreen with Green Tea. It’s on sale for $15.97 for an eight-ounce bottle, just a mouse click away.

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comments
3 years ago
Posted by AutismNewsBeat

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

3 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.

3 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.

3 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.

3 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!!!!!

3 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

3 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.

3 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.

3 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...

3 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.

3 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.

3 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

3 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.

3 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.

3 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.

3 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.

3 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.

3 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.

3 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.

3 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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