Congress Will Soon Lose Its Foremost Supporter of Quackery, but Will It Matter?
So, after his 30 years in the Senate promoting quackery, after January 3, 2015 we at SBM won’t have Tom Harkin to kick around anymore. This comes hot on the heels of the retirement of the other biggest promoter of quackery in Congress, Representative Dan Burton (R-IN), who declined to run for re-election last year and went off into the sunset a few weeks ago when the new Congress was sworn in. He’s been a fairly frequent target of criticism, albeit less so than Tom Harkin, on this blog as well, in particular for his promotion of his antivaccine views, his defense of the supplement industry against the FDA, his key role in the the Dietary Supplement Caucus, and his role in instigating one of the most unethical, wasteful clinical trials of all time, the randomized trial of the Gonzalez therapy for pancreatic cancer, a trial that was not just negative but showed that patients undergoing the Gonzalez therapy actually did considerably worse than patients undergoing standard treatment.
The ironic thing about Tom Harkin is that, if you ask researchers and officials at the NIH, they’ll tell you that Harkin is a major supporter of the biomedical research in general and the NIH in particular. In addition, organizations like The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, Research!America, and the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, and others from declaring Harkin a “champion of research.” For instance, the National Alliance on Mental Illness declared him a “champion of neuroscience research,” and an organization to which I belong, the American Association for Cancer Research, recently awarded him an AACR Award for Distinguished Service and Global Impact in Cancer and Biomedical Research. These are just the most recent awards and recognitions of many over the years. While it’s true that Harkin seems a strong supporter of the NIH on the surface, at the same time he is a corrosive influence, inserting his belief in CAM (or, as it’s increasingly being called, “integrative medicine”) into the NIH and pushing to promote it. Losing him is not going to be an unalloyed good in that the NIH and biomedical research will lose a champion just as much as the quacks will.
Harkin and Herbalife: Two great woos that woo great together
The question, of course, is: Why now? Why is Harkin retiring now? Sure, it might have something to do with his stated reasons. He might be tired. He’d be 81 at the end of another term, and maybe he wants to relax. On the other hand, the history of the Senate is replete with octogenarians and nonagenarians like Strom Thurmond and Frank Lautenberg serving until they’re carried out feet first. Compared to them, Harkin is a mere pup. He could potentially serve another two terms at least, given the propensity of senators to keep legislating until they drop.
Maybe this story, published around the same time as Harkin’s announcement, might at least partially explain his puzzling decision. Basically, it’s the story of how Senator Harkin has been the biggest patron of Herbalife, so much so that the title of the story refers to Harkin as “(D-Herbalife):
Harkin has served as Herbalife’s chief patron in the federal government for decades. Harkin attended the company’s “New Orleans Extravaganza” in June 2002 to speak to Herbalife officials and distributors about “the status of preventative healthcare in the U.S.” Harkin also spoke at the company’s 25th Anniversary “Atlanta Extravaganza” in April 2005. “Il Senatore Tom Arkins” addressed a confab of some 35,000 Herbalife consultants about a bill he sponsored to make “good nutrition available to everyone,” according to an English translation of a report from Leonardo di Paola, an Italian Herbalife distributor.
An interview of Harkin in Herbalife’s internal newsletter illustrates the symbiotic relationship.
Indeed it does. In the interview, Harkin expresses pride for having been one of the chief architects of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. This law, which is about as bad a law as you can imagine, basically gives supplement manufacturers a nearly free pass in marketing and selling their supplements. As long as they don’t make specific health claims for their supplements, they can sell practically anything, or, as Peter Lipson put it, “sell whatever you want, just don’t let us catch you.”