Taiwan is a very advanced kind of place. Their government stopped all commercial logging in 1992, swore off nuclear power and recently came whisperingly close to recognizing gay marriage. Their democracy, established in the 1980s, is firm, successful and arguably the most advanced in East Asia.
So it is no surprise they are making a well-considered move in public health reported by Al Jazeera lately.
The Taiwanese government is longer issuing new licenses for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) pharmacies so for some time they have been gradually dying out: an estimated 200 stores a year are closing, halving their number over the past 20 years. To the shocking objection of practitioners the licenses can’t be inherited. The absurdity of “inheriting” medical licenses stands by itself.
It’s a controversial move as people everywhere are loathe to give up anything “traditional”. They see it as a betrayal of culture, family, and generations past. Further, “loss of jobs” in the industry is cited as a problem however loss of jobs in any harmful industry is no loss: think of all those lost jobs if we reduced our mass incarceration program in the US, didn’t make nuclear weapons, or consider the “tragedy” of lost jobs in any destructive field.
Conversely, the People’s Republic of China (Beijing) is actively encouraging and promoting the use and research of TCM at home and abroad. They see it as good for the economy, the industry is worth $50B, as well as defensive of national pride. The People’s Republic is desperately short of “soft power” and herbs and endangered animal corpses, however useless or destructive, fit the bill.
The dreadful state of the air and water in the People’s Republic, a conveyor belt of scandals about mercury poisoned toothpaste, children’s toy paint, infant formula and lately vaccine problems all attest to the fact that the health of its citizens is a low priority for government in Beijing.
The whole debate is utterly mischaracterized by the media, though, simplistically cast as an East vs. West contest when geography and nationality actually have little to do with it. Traditional South American tribal “medicine” is just as fake as TCM but we don’t call that “South American Medicine”. Ditto the great fraud that is homeopathy isn’t called “Traditional German Medicine” despite hailing from there two centuries ago.
The word “traditional” is the kiss of death in any scientific endeavor because there is no place for “tradition” in science. Science progresses by the scientific method and only by it: “the ancients” with their magic based woo-woo knew almost nothing about biology or pharmacology. This fact is echoed by the thousands of studies and now meta-studies affirming the fact that TCM, including acupuncture, has no greater success rate than placebos. And the damage it does, as we shall see, is profound.
None of this assumes effective medications can’t come from traditional sources originally: some do. Witness aspirin from tree bark or the chemotherapy drug taxol derived from tea trees but drugs are only effective and legitimate when proven to stand up to the standards of safety and efficacy of the scientific method. Few herbal cures do. Logically, if they did work they’d be tested, proven, patented and make their discoverers or developers millions.
Further, if a medicine is harmful, with TCM there is no legal recourse so there’s almost no post-facto safety mechanism available for traditional medicine’s victims.
And TCM is in fact doing more harm than good. People who use useless or placebo therapies instead of real medicine can and do die. Or are harmed: in the US supplements send 23,000 people to the ER a year, in China 230,000 come to hospital-level grief from TCM. Consumer testing on TCM and supplements routinely warn of adulterants, some poisonous, and a general lack of quality control in the industry in China and here.
Perhaps the greatest cost is to the environment and biosphere. Being used in TCM is the kiss of death, suffering or extinction for a multitude of species. A non-exhaustive list of animals being slaughtered on a horrific scale for these placebos includes rhinos, elephants, tigers, sharks, monitor lizards, rhesus monkeys, barking deer, and impossibly cute pangolins, a small mammal whose scales are supposed by TCM to be healthy (they’re not). The now endangered pangolin is just the latest species to be hurled into the TCM wildlife meat grinder.
As if extinction weren’t enough there’s also misery and cruelty on the conscience of TCM buyers. Witness bile farms of black bears, horribly chronicled by the New York Times herein or here for readers with the strong stomach for it.
The above apply to all “alternative medicines” because there’s no such thing. If it worked it would be called “medicine” as per the scientific method. “Alternate” is a marketing term, cover for a fraud used to sucker in people who lack science literacy, misplaced trust and stolen dollars. It makes little difference where it’s from.
People are hurt and killed, animals emiserated, massacred en-mass or rendered extinct by the perpetuation of this dangerous robbery. So kudos to Taiwan and its science-informed government for realizing this and protecting its citizens.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney in New York City. He writes about politics, law and medicine for various publications.
Upper image: The original uploader was SlimVirgin at English Wikipedia. [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]
Lower image: U.S. Government Accountability Office from Washington, DC, United States [Public domain]