At many pharmacies in the United States, homeopathic remedies are displayed side by side along with tested and approved over-the-counter medications, giving the public the misleading impression that they have also been found legitimate and effective.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI), copublisher of the Skeptical Inquirer, has been working diligently for the past few years to make sure homeopathic remedies and other “pseudoscientific” medical products are not presented to the public in a false or misleading way. Until now, CFI’s efforts have been focused on promoting accurate labeling and marketing of homeopathic remedies. It has worked closely with U.S. federal regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to bring about improvements in that area.
Now CFI has taken the next big step. It has sued the United States’ largest pharmacy chain, CVS Health Corporation, for “a continuing pattern of fraudulent, deceptive, and otherwise improper marketing practices” in its promotion and display of homeopathic remedies. It says CVS’s practices “falsely present homeopathic products as equivalent alternatives to science-based medicines” and misrepresents them as effective treatments for specific diseases and symptoms.
CVS operates 9,800 stores in the United States, including sixty in the District of Columbia, where the suit was filed.
CFI filed the lawsuit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on June 29, 2018, “on behalf of the general public.” The suit calls homeopathy a “pseudoscience” and asks that CVS be found in violation of the D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act and be ordered to “do corrective advertising, marketing, labeling.” It calls for restitution to the public in the form of $1,500 per violation.
“Homeopathy is a total sham, and CVS knows it,” said Nicholas Little, CFI’s vice president and general counsel. “Yet the company persists in deceiving its customers about the effectiveness of homeopathic products. Homeopathics are shelved right alongside scientifically proven medicines, under the same signs for cold and flu, pain relief, sleep aids, and so on.”
“If you search for ‘flu treatment’ on their website, it even suggests homeopathics to you,” said Little. “CVS is making no distinction between those products that have been vetted and tested by science, and those that are nothing but snake oil.”
“CVS is taking cynical advantage of their customers’ confusion and trust in the CVS brand, and putting their health at risk to make a profit,” added Little. “And they can’t claim ignorance. If the people in charge of the country’s largest pharmacy don’t know that homeopathy is bunk, they should be kept as far away from the American healthcare system as possible.”
Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of CFI, said the lawsuit was a final resort. “We made a number of efforts to discuss this situation with CVS, but the concerns we raised were ignored,” she said. “Homeopathy is a multibillion-dollar consumer fraud. If CVS would rather line its pockets than protect Americans’ health, we have no choice but to take this fight to the courts.”
CFI’s twenty-eight–page complaint against CVS is clearly stated and strongly worded. “That was very much a conscious choice,” Little told SI. “I think in this if we get too caught up in the weeds of legalistic language and behavior we lose our biggest advantage, which is the sheer ridiculous nature of homeopathy.”
CFI made these factual allegations, all supported with abundant references to the scientific literature:
- “Homeopathy is a pseudoscience.” (This is backed up by numerous references.)
- “Homeopathic products do not work and cannot work.” There is no evidence they are any more effective than a placebo.
- CVS Health retails homeopathic products both online and in its 9,800 physical stores.
- CVS Health places homeopathic products alongside science-based, tested medicines.
- CVS’s product placement of homeopathic products makes material false and misleading claims regarding their effectiveness.
One example included in the complaint: CVS’s “marketing and product placement” indicates to consumers that ibuprofen, listed on the World Health Organization’s Model List of Essential Medicines, “is not more effective than the homeopathic remedy displayed beside it, Arnicare Arthritis.” By displaying them side by side, “CVS is actively claiming that Arnicare Arthritis provides relief for arthritis pain. Arnicare Arthritis does not provide relief for arthritis pain at any level greater than a placebo.”
The suit notes that similar comparisons can be made for each homeopathic product sold by CVS.
The suit says CVS knew or should have known that no scientific evidence exists to show that homeopathic remedies have any effect on specific diseases. It says CVS knew or should have known that its product placement and labeling create confusion between homeopathic remedies and science-based medicines.
CFI has for many years lobbied for tighter regulation of homeopathic products and has been invited by the FDA and FTC to provide expert testimony. As a result, the FTC declared in 2016 that the marketing of homeopathic products for specific diseases and symptoms is only acceptable if consumers are told: “(1) there is no scientific evidence that the product works and (2) the product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.” And last year, the FDA announced a new “risk-based” policy of regulatory action against homeopathic products.
“CVS should be warned, the evidence for our case is extremely strong,” said Blumner. “And if CVS’s endorsement of homeopathy is any indication, evidence will not be their strong suit.” CFI and CVS’s lawyers and management are now in discussions about the suit.
The lawsuit document and CFI’s July 9, 2018, news release announcing the suit are on CFI’s website, centerforinquiry.org.