Language Considerations and Legal Boundaries for Herbalists

The AHG provides valuable resources and considerations for the herbalist community. While we do not assume a policing or regulatory role in the practice of herbalism, we believe it is crucial for practitioners and individuals to be aware of and protect themselves against any potential red flags in practice language. By staying informed and vigilant, we can collectively ensure the highest standards of practice within the field of herbalism. If you have any further inquiries or concerns, please do not hesitate to reach out to us. The following language considerations were offered to the AHG as a resource by long time RH member Ellen Kamhi.

Herbalism Practice: Language Considerations and Legal Boundaries

Ellen Kamhi PHD, RN, AHN-BC, RH(AHG)

The Art and Science of Herbalism has likely either tickled or totally captured your mind, body, and soul! If you have concluded that you want to be an Herbalist, there are some things you should be aware of. I call it “Know Before You Go”!  

If you are committed to learning more about Herbalism to:

1.     Grow or gather whole herbs, via cultivating or wildcrafting

2.     Educate others about growing or gathering herbs

3.     Incorporate the use of herbs for yourself and your immediate family 

….. you can proceed with little concern for any legal ramifications! 

However, if you feel called to Practice Herbalism as a Career, or Produce and Sell Herbal Products, then that is a completely different matter.

These are two different categories of interest, and both have a wide range of regulations.

Although there is often quite a bit of overlap, we will discuss these two situations separately.

Practice Herbalism as a Career

If this is your passion, you are stepping on a well-worn path. In every society around the world, there have always been ‘Medicine People’ who held and shared the knowledge about the healing aspects of plants and how to use them. In addition, conflicts between herbalists and recognized authority is ALSO not new. For example, The British pharmacist Nicholas Culpepper   polarized the world of medicine by writing his classic work, Culpepper's Herbal. Culpepper was a staunch believer in granting everyone access to information about the use of plants for their healing components, which up to his time was controlled by the medical elite under the system perpetuated by Galen. Culpepper published his book in the common people's English, not Latin, the language of the physician aristocracy. This struggle echoes current times, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the Federal Trade Commission ( FTC), and State review boards,  repeatedly attempt to limit access to both information and  botanical products to the general public; we are reinventing the wheel with these grave matters of liberty and personal freedoms! On the other hand, regulations may lead to safer use, and a deeper consideration of possible herb-drug interactions and negative consequences. 

If you proclaim yourself to be an Herbalist, and you participate in counselling others in helping to choose which herbals they use, internally or externally, you have entered the realm of possible specific laws and regulations, which vary widely depending on which state you are in. 

Language is important. For example, the use of the word ‘Apothecary’ is restricted in most states. For example, Florida Statute indicates that the use of the word Apothecary is:

“Illegal Use in a trade name, sign, letter, or advertisement any term, including “drug,” “pharmacy,” “prescription drugs,” “Rx,” or “apothecary,” which implies that the person, firm, or corporation is licensed or registered to practice pharmacy in this state.” 

In general, the practice of herbalism is legal, but the laws regarding herbal interventions and whether herbalists can be charged with practicing medicine without a license vary by country and state.

In most places, herbalists can practice without a license, if they do not claim to diagnose or treat specific medical conditions. However, in other jurisdictions, herbalists may be required to register. Herbalists may be recognized by some states and may have specific requirements and responsibilities linked to practice. For example New Mexico specifically mentions herbology or herbalism in the 2021 New Mexico Statutes Chapter 61 - Professional and Occupational Licenses, Article 35 - Unlicensed Health Care Practice, Section 61-35-2 - Definitions.

However, the regulations for herbalists vary widely from state to state, and most states do not have any specific licensing or certification requirements for herbalists. However, this does not protect the herbalist from being accused of practicing medicine without a license.

If an herbalist is perceived as practicing medicine without a license or making claims to diagnose or treat specific medical conditions, they may be subject to legal action. It is important for herbalists to research and comply with the laws and regulations in their specific area of practice to avoid legal issues.

The specific words that could trigger an investigation into an herbalist would depend on the context in which they were used. However if an herbalist makes specific health claims about a product or service, or if they even suggest that their products or services can cure, treat, or prevent a disease, this can initiate an investigation.  (Please note- REGULATIONS about PRODUCTS are a much more in depth discussion. ) 

Some examples of specific words or phrases that could trigger a State Board investigation include:

  • "cures cancer"
  • "treats diabetes"
  • "prevents heart disease"
  • "eliminates pain"
  • "heals chronic illness"
  • "reverses aging"
  • "boosts immunity"
  • "restores hormones"

Cure: Herbalists should avoid using the word "cure" as it implies the ability to eliminate a disease or illness. 

Guarantee: Herbalists should avoid making any guarantees about the effectiveness of their products or services. Even though herbs have been used for centuries for healing, the effects can vary from person to person and depend on various factors.

Prescription: Herbalists should avoid using the term "prescription" as it can imply that they are licensed medical practitioners.

Diagnosis: Herbalists should avoid making any medical diagnoses. This is the responsibility of licensed medical practitioners and requires a medical license.

FDA-approved: Herbalists should avoid claiming that their products or services are FDA-approved. 

Medical advice: Herbalists should avoid giving medical advice, as this is the responsibility of licensed medical practitioners. They can provide guidance on how to use herbs, but it should not be considered medical advice.

Quantitative claims: Herbalists should avoid making specific quantitative claims about the effectiveness of their products or services. For example, they should not claim that a certain herb will "reduce cholesterol by 50%.”

Use of Professional title "Dr.":  Even if you have a valid Ph.D. in a health-related field, it is recommended that you not use the term "Dr." to prevent your clients from thinking, mistakenly, that you might be a medical doctor.  If a client calls you on the phone, or emails you, and refers to you as "Dr.", correct them immediately by informing them that you are not a medical doctor, or you could become guilty of passive fraud. 

Use of word “Patient” : If you are not a licensed health professional, use the word ‘client’ to describe anyone you are interacting with, rather than ‘patient.’

Spoken or Documented Interactions: continue to model all appropriate language SPOKEN during a consultation or DOCUMENTED in any format, such as handouts, client file notes, emails.

Overall, herbalists should strive to provide accurate information and avoid making or inferring any medical claims. They should also be transparent about their qualifications and limitations, and always prioritize the safety and well-being of their clients.

It's important to note that if an herbalist makes a specific health claim ANYWHERE, they may be held liable. This includes:

·        Personal Website

·        Business Card or Flyer

·        Facebook

·        Instagram

·        Twitter

·        Any social media platform

An exception may be, if an herbalist writes a book or online content about herbs, and describes healing attributes of the specific herb, but is not also SELLING ANY product that contains the herb, that lowers any potential risk. However, especially with online content, if any disease words are used, such as ‘pain’, ‘anxiety’ or ‘diabetes’, bots that are currently scanning content may pick that up and trigger a review. 

Unfortunately, there are many cases of herbalists being accused of practicing medicine without a license. Most of these involve situations where herbalists have made specific health claims or provided medical advice that falls outside their scope of practice or expertise.

For example, in 2019, an herbalist in North Carolina was charged with practicing medicine without a license after allegedly interacting with a client with a serious medical condition and advising the patient to stop taking their prescribed medication. In another case, an herbalist in California was accused of practicing medicine without a license after allegedly diagnosing and treating patients for various medical conditions.

These cases highlight the importance of herbalists understanding the scope of their practice and the legal and ethical boundaries of their profession. It is important for herbalists to be clear with their clients about what they can and cannot do, and to avoid making specific health claims or providing medical advice that is outside their area of expertise.

Herbalists should include a disclaimer during their first intake session with a client. 

Disclaimer - Herbalist (example) 

For an herbalist, a disclaimer could be used to clarify the scope of their practice, and to inform clients about the potential risks and limitations of herbalism.

An example of a disclaimer that an herbalist could use is:

"I am an herbalist, not a licensed medical professional. The information provided in my consultations is intended to support your overall health and wellness and is not intended to replace medical advice or treatment. It is important to work with your primary healthcare provider and to inform them of any herbs or supplements you are taking. Herbs may have side effects, cause individual sensitivities, or interact with medications, and it is important to discuss these risks with your healthcare provider."

The disclaimer should also communicate important information to clients about the herbalist's training and scope of practice, while also reminding clients of the importance of working with their healthcare provider.

The regulations for herbalists and herbal products are different, as herbalists are typically regulated at the state level. (Herbal products are regulated federally by the FDA/FTC.) 

Overall, while both herbalists and herbal products are subject to regulation, the regulatory requirements and processes are different, and depend on the specific state or federal regulations that apply.