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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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