Suspicious science

If there’s one thing that sets my teeth on edge more than any other, it’s companies/products/individuals making claims without any solid scientific fact or research.

Just last week, my dad (hi dad!) sent me a link to a page he’d found with numerous claims regarding a humble vegetable. Now, there’s no denying that vegetables are good for you. Full of essential vitamins and other nutrients, vegetables should feature in everyone’s diet.

But chopped up, soaked in water overnight and the resulting mush used to cure diabetes? I think not. Apparently, this website claims you will see remarkable results within 2 weeks. Even better, this vegetable soaked in water concoction will also act as a probiotic and give you bouncy hair. Pfft.

I’m not even going to link to the offending website. They’ll receive no traffic from here that’s for sure.

It seems that food vendors are particularly guilty of this brand of suspicious science. Acai berries, pomegranate juice, raw cacao, seaweed, blueberries, sweet potatoes and whole grains have all been touted as magical superfoods. The trouble is, there’s rarely any credible science behind these claims and what little science there is, is often exaggerated or misrepresented.

A fellow medical writer once told me that his golden rule for including or excluding any particular food in/from his diet is simply to look for an ingredients label. If it reads like a shopping list for a chemistry lab, it’s out. Thankfully, the term ‘superfood’ is now banned under EU legislation unless credible research can be shown to prove the claim. Sadly, it hasn’t stopped the marketing of food as a miracle cure for any particular ailment. Marketing has seriously messed up our relationship with food, giving us bigger packs ‘to share’ (yeah, right), promoting immune boosting yoghurt drinks that do little more than rot your teeth or the sugar substitutes that trick your taste buds in a way that sends you in search of even more sugar.

Now, I know some of you might be thinking this is all a bit odd from a writer that specialises in healthcare marketing. But the difference between what I do and what food promoters do is huge. Everything I write for pharmaceutical products is backed up by years of research, randomised clinical trials and must adhere to the UK ABPI code of conduct. No claim can be made that cannot be substantiated by clinical trials in humans. There are no fairytales or fabricated stories.

In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with the humble apple. Unless it’s very red and shiny and has been brought to you in a cottage in the woods by an older lady who has not weathered well. In that case, avoid the apple and run away. Fast.



Tuesday Tonic: Jobbies!

{Tonic: (noun) something with an invigorating effect}

Last week was all about boobs. This week, we’re all about poo at Highland Tonic.

I stumbled across this little ditty all about raising awareness for bowel cancer screening and just had to share it with you all. If nothing else, it’s a great way for all you non-Scots to learn about the word jobby.

Listen, enjoy and share with your friends and family. And I refuse to apologise if it becomes the soundtrack to your thoughts for the rest of the day.


Monday Malady: Measles

As a healthcare writer and a mum, my knowledge of many things medical has on occasion been called upon by friends and relatives. I never proclaim to be an expert on diagnosis, but now and again a friend will ask for advice. Usually about vaccines.

I’ve been asked about the whopping cough vaccine, the flu vaccine, but most of all the MMR vaccine. Were we allowing our children to be vaccinated? Was I happy that the claims linking MMR to autism really were false? Surely, there’s no smoke without fire? In 2006, 8 years after Andrew Wakefield published his now-discredited paper, my friends were still more fearful of the MMR vaccine than of measles, mumps or rubella.

Many of us could remember having measles or mumps as a child. It didn’t seem that bad. No worse than chickenpox surely. So why were we being asked to subject our precious babies to the (albeit transient) trauma of vaccination? Were these childhood diseases not just part of childhood and a good way to strengthen the immune system?

No. They’re not just a part of childhood. Or at least they don’t have to be thanks to the MMR vaccine. Those of us that can remember having measles or mumps as a child were lucky. We probably weren’t malnourished or immune deficient, otherwise we would have been at risk of developing pretty serious complications. Up until the introduction of the MMR vaccine in 1988, measles was a major cause of morbidity and mortality in the UK. Between 1970 and 1983, more than half the acute measles deaths that occurred were in previously healthy children who had not been immunised (Miller CL (1985) Deaths from measles in England and Wales, 1970–83. BMJ (Clin Res Ed) 290(6466): 443–4.)

Otitis media (7 – 9% of cases), pneumonia (1 – 6%), diarrhoea (8%) and convulsions (one in 200) were common complications of measles and in 1993/94, a measles epidemic, affecting the west of Scotland, led to 138 teenagers being admitted to one hospital.

Following the introduction of the MMR vaccine in 1988 and uptake levels in excess of 90%, measles transmission was substantially reduced and confirmed cases of measles fell steadily to very low levels. Until 2006, the last confirmed death due to acute measles in the UK had been in 1992. Measles was becoming a thing of the past. It’s no wonder that many parents became complacent about vaccination and decided that the perceived mild risks of a childhood disease like measles was a better bet than a frightening vaccine with many a tabloid headline to its name.

Sadly, measles is now beginning to rear its ugly head again. In 2012 there were 2,030 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales. In 1998, there were 56.

The current outbreak in Swansea has affected over 600 children.*

The success of the MMR vaccine at almost eradicating the measles virus was cruelly its undoing. People forgot about the risks of not vaccinating. They forgot that vulnerable children, including babies too young to be vaccinated could die from measles. Herd immunity protects these vulnerable children by ensuring that the virus is no longer circulating in the community. Vaccination is about more than protecting the individual.

In a world of instant global communication and instant gratification, it’s easy to think that measles is a virus we left behind with formica and angel delight. But we’d be wrong. It was just waiting for the opportunity for a revival.

*An update on the BBC website today (16th April) reported that the number of cases had now risen to 765.


Friday Frolic: Made in Scotland from girders

{frolic: (verb) playful, excited, energetic}

This week, we’ve mostly been rediscovering the delights of one of Scotland’s most famous beverages: Irn Bru. It quenches your thirst, cures your hangover and refreshes the parts other soft drinks can’t even hope to reach (let’s ignore its chemistry set ingredients – it’s made from girders and that’s all you need to know, ok?).

So, to continue with the Scottish theme this week, I just had to share this ad with you. Another doozy of an ad from The Leith Agency, it plays on some well known Scottish cliches with tongues firmly lodged in cheeks.

If you can bounce in six inch heels all night and still walk home in your bare feet.
If you can keep two passions burning bright and see if there’s still some romance and defeat,
If you can hit a foreign beach without a tan or brave the hurling sleet with just a shirt,
If you know you’re easily the better man when side by side with suits and just a skirt,
When you can party in the summer rain with kama kaze midges in the mud,
or grit your teeth and put up with the pain of seeing in the New Year in the Scud,
If you can wait and wait for 1P change then proudly give the lot to charity,
and know for certain it’s not strange to call your lunch dinner and dinner tea,
If you can handle folk who call you Jock
You’ll have really earned your IRN BRU.
You’ll thank your mum for keeping you in stock.
And what is more, you’ll feel phenomenal too!

It’s Friday, go on, have a frolic with Irn Bru. Cheers!


Tuesday Tonic: Mary doll’s breasts

{Tonic: (noun) something with an invigorating effect}

So here we are, finally, in bonnie Scotland!

To celebrate, I thought I’d share a great breast cancer awareness video with you that was produced right here in Scotland. Created by The Leith Agency in Edinburgh (famous for their Irn Bru adverts) it features Elaine C Smith, none other than Mary doll. Long suffering wife of the notorious Rab C Nesbitt.

Like all great campaigns, it even inspired a spin-off video:

What I love about this campaign is it’s honesty. It’s engaging, informative and *shock, horror* actually uses real breasts to convey a very important message. No airbrushing, no clever lighting, just everyday boobs in all their various shapes and forms. It also taps into the Scottish sense of humour, drawing attention to an important issue with some lighthearted banter.

Well done The Leith Agency, solid proof that you don’t need to be based in London to have access to some of the best creative talent in the UK.

News, Opinion

Tuesday Tonic: Dog days

Chocolate eggs were found in abundance at Highland Tonic Towers this weekend, I hope everyone had a lovely extended weekend?

On Friday, we’re moving to our new HQ, leaving London town behind and relocating north of the border. Highland Tonic HQ will finally be in the Highlands of Scotland but normal service will resume by Monday 8th April.

Meanwhile, I wanted to share this with you. I’m loving this print campaign by MINI to celebrate being the car behind the highly successful SPCA Driving Dogs campaign in New Zealand. Clean, simple and makes the viewer work for the pay-off. Love it.

Dogs Choose Mini.

For the rest of the campaign by Draftfcb Auckland go to:

Any favourites you would like to share? Come on now, don’t be shy!


Tuesday Tonic: Playing with diseases

{Tonic: (noun) something with an invigorating effect}

Just a quick visually inspiring post today as I'm up to my eyes in writing a proper opinion piece for a proper publication (Me? Opinionated? I know - you're shocked, right? More on that in due course), writing scripts for videos, creating concepts for campaigns and email alerts for an NHS database.
The 8 most frequent diseases of the past 91 days


The visualization shows the disease alerts of the last 91 days. Click through to the original in Visually and you can select the name of a disease on the left then see reports by continent. Have a play with it and enjoy.

See you all on the other side of the Easter Bunny!


Tuesday Tonic: Bashing Big Pharma

{Tonic: (noun) something with an invigorating effect}

Unless you’ve been living in seclusion in a cave somewhere in the Himalayas for the past few months, it would be pretty difficult to miss all the Big Pharma Bashing that’s been going on in the media recently.

From Ben Goldacre to the BMJ, it seems like everyone has jumped on the Big Pharma bashing bandwagon.

Yes, there is a need for transparency. Yes, there is a need for honesty around trial data. I don’t think anyone can deny that.

But what about all the good stuff? Big Pharma today isn’t just about the drugs anymore. It’s not enough. New Clinical Commissioning Groups want more than just a drug. They want value for money and assurances that the drug they’re being ask to include on their formularies does more than simply alleviate symptoms. So in response, there’s funding for nurses, educational materials, CPD programmes, apps to help patients track their symptoms, websites and online resources for patients and carers….the list goes on.

Ah, but all these extra resources are part of the problem I hear you cry. How can doctors make honest prescribing decisions when they’re influenced by all the extra razzamatazz?

Let me ask you this: Do we hold the intelligence of doctors in such low regard that we think they’ll overlook hard clinical facts? Do we think they are really so easily swayed by some pretty pictures in a glossy brochure?

Never, in 12 years, have I ever worked on a project that stretched, bended or distorted the ABPI Code of Conduct. Projects are always scrutinised, from every angle, to ensure they provide a balanced view and do not bring the industry into disrepute. Every word is carefully chosen and if it can’t be substantiated by trial data, it’s removed. Data on file is swiftly becoming a thing of the past and robust, double-blind clinical trials are the norm (as it should be of course).

Sure, I’ve sat in meetings where there’s been very little, if no talk of patients. Plenty of talk about market expansion and widening the pool of customers, changing prescribing behaviours and finding new ways to convince doctors that this drug is the dogs wotsits. But there are pharma companies out there that try to put patients at the heart of their business. That strive to improve the lives of the patients their drugs are designed for.

And really, if Big Pharma doesn’t fund the education programmes, the conferences, the extra nurses, the patient support materials, the adherence programmes, who will?

The NHS can’t afford to, that’s for sure.

What say you: Are you on the Big Pharma Bashing bandwagon? Or do you believe that without Big Pharma the NHS will fail to thrive? Can Big Pharma invigorate the NHS?


Friday frolic: More on malaria

 {frolic: (verb) playful, excited, energetic}

A bit of a serious subject for the Friday Frolic today, but as it’s Red Nose Day, I thought a continuation of the malaria theme was fitting.


Right, I’m off to wear my pants on my head and spend money at the local school’s Red Nose Day cake stall (buying back all the fairy cakes I baked last night).

Have a great weekend everyone!