Is Oprah Selling Snake Oil?

Oprah responded yesterday to Newsweek's recent claim that her health advice is irresponsible, but the criticisms of her embrace of homeopathy and other non-scientifically proven cures keep coming.

In his blog, The White Coat Underground, internist PalMD takes Oprah to task for her claim that, "homeopathy treatment is similar to how a vaccination or immunization works." He counters, "You can measure the antibody response provoked by a vaccine. You cannot measure anything provoked by homeopathy because the only think homeopathy produces is a bill." To Oprah's admission that, "there are different theories behind homeopathy. But lack of convincing evidence is a big concern with homeopathy's acceptance by conventional medical doctors," PalMD responds,

No! Homeopathy's "lack of convincing evidence" is not some problem we uptight "conventional doctors" have—-it is the fundamental problem (along with the absurdity of it) with homeopathy. It has not been shown to work. This is rather important in medicine.

Newsweek's critique is more far-reaching. Writers Weston Kosova and Pat Wingert call Oprah out for her embrace of Suzanne Somers's potentially dangerous "biodentical" hormone regimen, Jenny McCarthy's potentially dangerous argument that vaccines cause autism, and Rhonda Byrne's The Secret, which is potentially dangerous if you, like Oprah's guest Kim Tinkham, take it to mean that you should use positive thinking instead of actual medicine to cure your illnesses. Oprah is in a unique position, they write:

Her most ardent fans regard her as an oracle. If she mentions the title of a book, it goes to No. 1. If she says she uses a particular wrinkle cream, it sells out. At Oprah's retail store in Chicago, women can purchase used shoes and outfits that she wore on the show. Her viewers follow her guidance because they like and admire her, sure. But also because they believe that Oprah, with her billions and her Rolodex of experts, doesn't have to settle for second best. If she says something is good, it must be.

Oprah told ET Online that "I trust the viewers, and I know that they are smart and discerning enough to seek out medical opinions to determine what may be best for them." And in a longer statement released to Newsweek, she said,

The guests we feature often share their first-person stories in an effort to inform the audience and put a human face on topics relevant to them. I've been saying for years that people are responsible for their actions and their own well-being. I believe my viewers understand the medical information presented on the show is just that-information-not an endorsement or prescription. Rather, my intention is for our viewers to take the information and engage in a dialogue with their medical practitioners about what may be right for them.

But the truth is, many do look to Oprah as an oracle. She had far too much power to pretend that her excitement over certain treatments ("After one day on bioidentical estrogen, I felt the veil lift," she wrote in her magazine) is just more information or people to consider. Oprah's opinion is persuasive to many people, more persuasive, perhaps, than the advice of their own doctors, and she has a responsibility not to recommend that her viewers sacrifice their money and possibly their health for treatments that have no scientific basis.

Kosova and Wingert say Oprah hasn't given equal weight to critics of Somers or McCarthy's positions. She read a statement by the CDC denying the link between vaccines and autism but then allowed McCarthy to conclude the segment. McCarthy said, "my science is named Evan, and he's at home. That's my science."

Health is unpredictable and scary, and it's natural to want to rely on "my science," to crave a certain feeling of control. Oprah offers that control, telling viewers, "we have the right to demand a better quality of life for ourselves. And that's what doctors have got to learn to start respecting." But this control is an illusion. We can't demand better health from our doctors, from supplements, or from the universe. At some point, we have to take what comes our way. Oprah's message of "living your best life" has been helpful to many people, but sometimes your best life comes from accepting your lot, and looking at your options with a clear, critical eye.

Live Your Best Life Ever! [Newsweek]
Oprah's Website Of Woo—-Can It Change? [ScienceBlogs]
Oprah Responds To Newsweek Report [ETOnline]