A cup of gecko tea a day . . .
August 4, 1998: 1:03 p.m. ET

Herbal healthcare is winning patients and support from orthodox medicine
graphic graphic
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Deep in the heart of New York's Chinatown, amid the hustle and bustle of the produce markets and seafood vendors, you'll find Kamwo Trading Co., a Manhattan presence for 25 years.
     The goods range from cricket wings to licorice root -- all the makings of herbal brews. There are over 1,500 medicinal ingredients here, and not all are for the faint of heart.
     "It's hard to explain to your patient that you really need that lizard in your tea, you know," said Thomas Leung, herbal pharmacist.
     Leung is the fourth generation of his family to parse out Chinese herbs. He sees it as his mission to bring the business to mainstream America.
     "My goal is to have traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture to be accessible to everyone and not just to Chinese people," Leung said.
     Leung has no problem with Western medicine. In fact, he says, you can't beat it for treating symptoms -- and he should know, because he worked as a pharmacist for three years.
     "If you're having an asthmatic (attack) and you're having the bronchiolar spasm, it's a good idea to use your inhaler and not go and make your tea," he said.
     But to get at the root of other problems, Leung prefers Chinese medicine, and some Western doctors back him up.
     "Chinese herbal medicine in my practice has been very successful at treating more chronic illnesses where the cause is often not easily apparent to us," said Dr. Henry Lodge of Columbia University Hospital. "A lot of digestive problems, arthritis, headaches, generally feelings of fatigue and malaise."
     But since leaving his full-time pharmacist's job, Leung has found many roadblocks, including people who think they know what Chinese herbalism is all about, but don't.
     Take the Woody Allen film, "Alice." [765K Quicktime movie] When Mia Farrow's character visits an herbalist, he concocts a tea that makes her disappear.
     "And then you have people who know very little about alternative medicine but have a lot of very strong opinions," Leung says. "They're very opinionated about the field, so you have to go up against that."
     And then you have to battle the "ick" factor. This is an industry that deals in cicada shells and gecko lizard bodies and expects people to drink the broth made by boiling such unusual ingredients together.
     For squeamish customers who don't want to know what's inside their herbal remedies, Leung says he bags the entire recipe, sometimes in one huge tea bag.
     The approach seems to be working. Since he started working at Kamwo full-time three years ago, Leung says the non-Chinese clientele has picked up almost 20 percent.
     "When a non-Chinese patient or customer comes in, what we would do is give them extra instructions," he explained. "We take, we would hand them printout pamphlets, how to prepare herbal medicine."
     With faxes pouring in from acupuncturists and druggists across the country, Kamwo fills 200 prescriptions a day. The company has built a new acupuncture studio and even a tea room at the back of the store.
     Response has been enthusiastic from a market that is literally sick and tired of putting up with unwanted drug side-effects and health insurance providers' red tape.
     "There's a number of different market and social factors that have created this herbal interest," said Mark Blumenthal of the American Botanical Council. "First of all, there's the philosophy that natural is better."
     However, Leung is perhaps less "philosophical" but more pragmatic in his take on the business.
     "If it's a better option to use western medicine, we certainly should do that. And if it's a better option to use traditional Chinese medicine, we should go with that, so I try and tell people, don't limit yourself to only one type of medicine." Back to top
     -- by staff writer Lesley Geary


Drug firms facing stress - Feb. 24, 1998

Packing your medical bag - Feb. 16, 1998


American Botanical Council

Kamwo Herb and Tea Co.

Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNNmoney