Walmart is committing wide-scale consumer fraud and endangering the health of its customers through its sale and marketing of homeopathic medicines, the Center for Inquiry (CFI) alleges in a lawsuit filed in the District of Columbia on May 20.
CFI says the mega-retailer is deceiving consumers by making no meaningful distinction between real medicine and useless homeopathic treatments on its shelves and in its online store, misrepresenting homeopathy’s safety and efficacy. CFI is currently engaged in a similar suit against CVS, the nation’s largest drug retailer, filed in June 2018 (“Center for Inquiry Sues CVS Pharmacies for Marketing of ‘Sham’ Homeopathy,” SI, November/December 2018). It is still ongoing.
“Walmart sells homeopathics right alongside real medicines, in the same sections in its stores, under the same signs,” said Nicholas Little, CFI’s vice president and general counsel. “Searches on its website for cold and flu remedies or teething products for infants yield pages full of homeopathic junk products. It’s an incredible betrayal of customers’ trust and an abuse of Walmart’s titanic retail power.” (See Little’s article “Suing for Science,” p. 60.)
Homeopathy is an eighteenth-century pseudoscience premised on the unscientific notion that a substance that causes a particular symptom is what should be ingested to alleviate it. Dangerous substances are diluted to the point that no trace of the active ingredient remains, but its alleged effectiveness rests on the nonsensical claim that water molecules have “memories” of the original substance. Homeopathic treatments have no effect whatsoever beyond that of a placebo. “Walmart can’t claim it doesn’t know that homeopathy is snake oil, because it runs its own enormous pharmacy business and makes its own homeopathic products,” said Little. “So whether it’s a scientifically proven remedy like aspirin or flatly denounced junk like homeopathic teething caplets for babies, Walmart sells all of it under its in-house ‘Equate’ branding. It’s all the same to Walmart.”
Choosing homeopathic treatments to the exclusion of evidence-based medicines can result in worsened or prolonged symptoms—and in some cases even death. Several products have been found to contain poisonous ingredients that have affected tens of thousands of adults and children in just the past few years. As recently as May 14, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warnings to five manufacturers of homeopathic products for numerous safety violations. (See next story.)
“Despite being among the richest corporations on Earth and the largest retailer in the United States, Walmart chooses to further pad its massive wealth by tricking consumers into throwing their money away on sham medicinal products that are scientifically proven to be useless and potentially dangerous,” said Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. “We intend to put a stop to it.”
The official complaint is on the CFI website, centerforinquiry.org.
CFI has lobbied for tighter regulation of homeopathic products for many years, becoming the leading advocate for science-based medicine and against the proliferation of snake oil. In 2015, CFI was invited by the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (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 acceptable only 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.” In 2017, the FDA announced a new “risk-based” policy of regulatory action against homeopathic products.
CFI announced July 10 that the Stiefel Freethought Foundation is adding $150,000 to the $100,000 already committed to help underwrite CFI’s consumer fraud cases against Walmart and CVS. Activist and philanthropist Todd Stiefel, a former executive of Stiefel Laboratories, is also providing expert advice and guidance. The Stiefel Foundation has now provided $250,000 to fund CFI’s legal efforts against homeopathy marketing. CFI gratefully acknowledges the Stiefel Freethought Foundation and its ongoing support of this work.