Our Opinion: Licensing naturopathy quacks undermines trust in medical doctors

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Junk science is one step closer to receiving North Carolina's state seal of approval.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law Friday that lays the groundwork for licensing the practice of naturopathic medicine. House Bill 277 establishes a work group to "develop recommendations necessary to provide appropriate oversight and regulation."

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services will convene the group on or before Sept. 15 and the panel will report its findings and recommendations to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services on or before Jan. 15, 2019.

Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, introduced the legislation. A notable sponsor is Rep. Greg Murphy, R-Pitt, a Vidant Health urologic surgeon. This medical doctor joined House colleagues in paving the way to legitimize the practice of quackery.

Naturopathy is a catchall term that encompasses a wide gamut of home remedies, behavioral therapies, herbal treatments and alternatives to Western medicine. A few naturopathic disciplines may warrant further study, but the vast majority is bunk. 

Homeopathy, the practice of diluting a compound in water until there is no measurable trace of it left, is a cornerstone of naturopathic "medicine." Yet homeopathic treatments have no scientific muster, and any anecdotal evidence of their effectiveness is attributed to the placebo effect. 

Doctors and researchers consider homeopathy a pseudoscience. Hydrotherapy and electromagnetic therapy - both widely discredited forms of junk science - also find their place beneath the naturopathic umbrella.

Acupuncture is another naturopathic treatment with no accepted body of medical research. Some studies show it can provide pain relief, but this, too, is attributable to the placebo effect. 

Herbal remedies, vitamins and minerals are considered dietary supplements, and while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission limit manufacturers' health claims, supplements are not controlled substances that require a doctor's prescription. If you think ginkgo, ginger or vitamin C could be right for you, why pay a quack in a white coat to proffer what you can purchase yourself at a health food store?

A scant few naturopathic disciplines, such as yoga and breathing exercises, do have legitimate therapeutic benefits. Doctors consider them complementary treatments, but they don't require medical study or licensing. Fitness coaches can teach yoga just fine; a naturopathic medical license from the state is unnecessary.

Naturopathy has its adherents, sincere and well-meaning folks who believe crystals or magnets or homeopathic tinctures have improved their health. Most physicians chalk this up to the power of positive thinking. If someone's convinced himself an obscure regimen can effect a miracle cure, good luck changing his mind.

It's baffling that a Republican-controlled legislature would seek to expand the state's already overzealous occupational licensing scheme by regulating naturopathy. The conservative John Locke Foundation has long railed against the practice of setting up professional practice boards for ordinary occupations. They serve as barriers to entry that limit competition and constrain the free market. They are a nanny-state idea fundamentally at odds with conservative principles.

If self-professed small government advocates want to license naturopaths, they are doing so either because they believe in expanding state power or because they want to endorse the outer fringes of alternative health care and give it mainstream credibility it can't earn on its scientific merits.

Purveyors of purported natural remedies should be allowed to sell to willing buyers, but the General Assembly shouldn't give self-proclaimed healers a fancy certificate with a state seal. Lawmakers run the risk of legitimizing quackery and misleading patients into thinking a medical doctor and a naturopath are on equal footing.

As for complementary health care that integrates modern medicine with meditation, mindfulness and relaxation therapy, there's no reason physicians already licensed by the N.C. Medical Board - real doctors like Rep. Greg Murphy - couldn't offer such options to their patients.

Call your state representatives and tell them to say no to designating state-approved snake oil salesmen.