Homeopathy is a sham. Homeopathic “remedies” have been shown repeatedly by scientific research to be at best placebos. The entire theoretical basis of homeopathy—the concepts that “like treats like” and that increasingly diluting an alleged active ingredient to untraceably small concentrations while periodically shaking the solution actually increases its potency—is laughable, and no credible research has shown it to have any validity.
Yet millions upon millions of dollars are spent each year by the American public on this snake oil. Frustrating as that may be, we at the Center for Inquiry (CFI) believe that is an adult’s right. If they want to waste their money on such nonsense, they may do so, just as they may buy “healing” crystals or visit a reiki practitioner. However, there are important caveats. We have extreme misgivings about parents eschewing science-based medicine and “treating” their children homeopathically. The denial of real medicine to those who have no say in their treatment leads to short term pain and suffering and often long term negative consequences up to and including preventable death. We also believe that if adults are purchasing such products, they should be provided with true information about what they are spending money on. Homeopathic products should not be marketed in a deceptive manner.
The regulation of over the counter (OTC) drugs in the United States is shared by two main government agencies: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FDA oversees what products may be offered for sale in this manner, and the FTC regulates how these products may be marketed. Both agencies have, in recent years, undertaken a review of their regulation of OTC homeopathic products, and CFI has contributed testimony to both.
The FDA, in response to an inquiry from CFI, noted that it will announce its regulatory regime later this year. The FTC, however, in November 2016, issued an Enforcement Policy Statement (EPS) detailing a change in its approach to the regulation of OTC homeopathic products. Noting that the Federal Trade Act “does not exempt homeopathic products from the general requirement that objective product claims be truthful and substantiated,” it continued to state that “the promotion of an OTC homeopathic product for an indication that is not substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence may not be deceptive if that promotion effectively communicates to customers that: (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 medical experts.” The EPS also acknowledged that “for the vast majority of OTC homeopathic drugs … there are no valid studies using current scientific methods showing the product’s efficacy.”
The EPS then is clear. To avoid deceptive promotion, homeopathic products being promoted as beneficial for particular ailments must display this disclaimer. However, this doesn’t appear to be happening. Homeopathic manufacturers don’t seem to have changed their packaging, and if you walk into a neighborhood drug store, you still see, for example, Boiron’s Oscillococcinum (a “remedy” containing an infinitesimally small dilution1 of the liver of a Muscovy duck) sitting alongside Tylenol on a shelf labeled “Cold and Flu.” Both the producer and the retailer are promoting this product as a treatment for the symptoms of a particular illness, there is no scientific evidence that it works for that illness, and there is no display of the required disclaimer.
So, we at CFI decided the best initial approach was to contact a retailer. We have been in communications with CVS stores through their attorneys. Our requests were, we think, reasonable. We did not ask that CVS stops selling homeopathic products, but merely that they market them, both online and in their brick and mortar stores, in a nondeceptive manner. We requested that CVS sells homeopathic products in a different section, and that this section displays clearly the required FTC disclaimer. For online sales, we requested that the disclaimer be displayed when someone added a homeopathic product to their shopping cart. CVS, after initial discussions, has failed to respond further.
CFI’s next step, then, was to write to the FTC requesting enforcement proceedings be undertaken against CVS. The letter can be read here. The ball is now in the FTC’s court. The agency has established rules for the promotion of OTC homeopathic products. They must now enforce them. If they don’t, CFI is pledged to explore ways to bring private legal action to ensure that retailers no longer participate in this fraud on the public.
1 Oscillococcinum is a 200C dilution—approximately 1 part duck offal in 10400 parts “remedy.”