A judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Center for Inquiry (CFI) against Walmart for its marketing of homeopathic fake medicine. CFI says it will appeal.
In May 2019, CFI filed a lawsuit against Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, accusing it of committing wide-scale consumer fraud and endangering the health of its customers through its sale and marketing of pseudoscientific homeopathic drugs. The suit accused Walmart of misrepresenting homeopathy’s safety and efficacy by hawking homeopathic products right alongside real, evidence-based medicine on its shelves and in its online store, with no distinction between them. (See “Suing for Science” and “CFI Sues Walmart for Fraud …” in Skeptical Inquirer’s special Health Wars issue, September/October 2019.)
On May 20, 2020, Judge Florence Pan of the District of Columbia Superior Court dismissed CFI’s case, but CFI considers the grounds for dismissal dubious and bizarre.
First, Judge Pan claimed that the Center for Inquiry lacked standing as a consumer protection organization. That assertion is belied by the fact that for more than forty years the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazine, both a part of CFI, have investigated and exposed pseudoscientific medical practices for the benefit of consumers. CFI has also helped educate the public about the dangers of pseudoscientific health products and advocated for stricter regulation of scientifically unproven health products with legal action and lobbying. CFI also now includes the website Quackwatch, an encyclopedic source of critical information for consumers about dubious health claims and products.
“The Center for Inquiry was explicitly founded for the very purpose on which Judge Pan says we have no standing,” said Nick Little, CFI’s vice president and general counsel. “Consumer protection is about more than recalls of unsafe toys. It’s about stopping powerful corporations from abusing the trust of their customers and risking their health with deceptive practices. It’s baffling to me that this judge refuses to see that.”
Second, Judge Pan asserted that CFI failed to identify Walmart’s specific actions that lead to harm to consumers. But CFI maintains that the harm could not have been more clear: By making no distinction between real and fake medicine, Walmart is profiting off consumers’ confusion—confusion that is attested to in a recent survey on consumer attitudes toward homeopathic products and its retailers. (See “CFI Survey on Homeopathy: Consumers Feel Scammed by Walmart and CVS,” SI, November/December 2019.)
“Walmart literally shelves its useless homeopathic products under signs that read ‘cold and flu,’ many of them packaged with Walmart’s own private label branding, right next to real medicine,” said Little. “Walmart creates the confusion in consumers’ minds, and then benefits from that confusion. How much clearer can it be?”
CFI is currently waging a similar suit in the District of Columbia against the country’s biggest pharmacy chain, CVS, again challenging the presentation and marketing of homeopathic products in their stores. CFI is currently awaiting the judge’s decision on CVS’s motion to dismiss in that case.