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By LARRY KANTER

Senior Reporter

Leading a national wave of interest in alternative medicine, Angelenos are popping pills, sucking on homeopathic medicines, putting on patches and brewing exotic herbs like never before all in the belief that natural remedies give them a better shot at good health than traditional treatments.

Retailers and manufacturers are riding the wave with even more enthusiasm many of them posting huge jumps in sales over the past several years alone. Newspapers, magazines and scores of new Internet sites, meanwhile, breathlessly report on the latest herb or homeopathic remedy that offers a potential pathway to well-being.

But amid the current frenzy, one question looms: Do these things actually work?

The short answer that no one really knows is hardly reassuring.

Despite their increasing popularity, few homeopathic or herbal therapies have been tested in the same rigorous, double-blind fashion demanded of mainstream pharmaceuticals. Such an absence of concrete evidence makes some in the mainstream medical community apprehensive. While many doctors concede that herbal and botanical remedies can have a powerful placebo effect providing a psychological boost in the healing process that's hard to dismiss only a minority of physicians hold much stock in the substances' actual curative powers.

"The issue for most physicians in the United States is that we are taught in the scientific method to test an idea and say, yes it works or no it doesn't," said Dr. Samuel Solish, president of the Pasadena Medical Society and a board member of the Los Angeles County Medical Association. "These things may have great effects and may be very positive, but we will never know until they are put through scientific scrutiny."

Compounding the problem is a virtual absence of regulatory oversight. Unlike drugs, dietary supplements and herbs are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They are not peer-reviewed by scientific panels; nor are they required to go through clinical trials and the lengthy FDA approval process to get on the market.

All told, the deliberative, methodical pace required by normal scientific inquiry is utterly at odds with the Gold Rush mentality that currently characterizes the natural remedies industry.

In 1997, consumers in California and Hawaii spent some $2.8 billion on vitamins, herbs, dietary supplements and the like more than 25 percent of the $10.4 billion spent on such products nationwide, according to Natural Foods Merchandiser, a trade publication.

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