US homeopathy ruling a victory for ‘reason, science and health’

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Homeopathic pills in vials

Homeopathic remedies in the US must produce scientific proof to back their claims of efficacy, the US Federal Trade Commission has ruled. If no evidence exists, companies must state this clearly on their labelling, and also state that claims are based only on ancient 18th-century theories that are rejected by the majority of the scientific community.

The US Federal Trade Commission has issued a statement, which says that homeopathic remedies have to be held to the same standard as other products that make similar claims. Business Insider reports that in other words, American companies must now have reliable scientific evidence for health-related claims that their products can treat specific conditions and illnesses.

In the US and UK, drug manufacturers have to show that their products are effective by performing double-blind scientific studies with control groups. These show whether the drug is superior to a placebo at treating a condition or not.

Th report says the new policy statement called the Enforcement Policy Statement on Marketing Claims for Over-the-Counter (OTC) Homeopathic Drugs states that “the case for efficacy is based solely on traditional homeopathic theories and there are no valid studies using current scientific methods showing the product’s efficacy.”

Therefore, if no such evidence exists, companies must state this fact clearly on their labelling, and also state that claims are based only on ancient 18th-century theories that are rejected by the majority of the scientific community. Failure to do this will be considered a violation of the FTC Act.

“This is a real victory for reason, science, and the health of the American people,” said Michael De Dora, public policy director for The Centre for Inquiry in response to the new act. “The FTC has made the right decision to hold manufacturers accountable for the absolutely baseless assertions they make about homeopathic products.”

Homeopathy dates back to the 1700s and works on the theory that “like cures like.” Basically, if you had a rash, then you would treat it with minute doses of a natural substance that causes rashes, like poison ivy. Many homeopathic products are so diluted that they no longer contain detectable levels of the initial substance though, which homeopaths dismiss with the claim of something called “water memory.” This idea relies heavily on the work of Jacques Benveniste and a controversial study, whose results have never been replicated.

The report says studies have repeatedly shown that homeopathic remedies work no better than a placebo. Studies that show the homeopathic product being superior are often published in the journal Homeopathy, have no control group, or are not blinded – (the patients knew whether they were getting the real treatment or the placebo). However, if you take a medicine and you feel better, the inclination to believe that it was the medicine that made you better is strong. That’s why users of homeopathy keep going back. Unfortunately, it’s usually just the placebo effect, or the body naturally healing itself over time.

With the new regulations, customers will be informed explicitly about whether the product they pick up at the pharmacy has any scientific basis not. The report says this is important because homeopathic remedies aren’t just ineffective, but they can be dangerous too. The US Food  and Drug Administration is currently investigating the deaths of 10 babies who were given homeopathic teething tablets that contained deadly nightshade.

“Consumers can’t help but be confused when snake oil is placed on the same pharmacy shelves as real science-based medicine, and they throw away billions of dollars every year on homeopathy based on its false promises,” said De Dora. “The dangers of homeopathy are very real, for when people choose these deceptive, useless products over proven, effective medicine, they risk their health and the health of their families.”


The FTC deserves a robust round of applause, according to Steven Salzberg, the Bloomberg distinguished professor of biomedical engineering, computer science, and biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University, writing in a Forbes report.

He writes: “There is no scientific evidence backing homeopathic health claims; and homeopathic claims are based only on theories from the 1700s that are not accepted by modern medical experts.

“Homeopathy is the most obviously fake alternative medicine you’re likely to see in your local pharmacy. This may seem like a pretty strong statement, but look at what homeopathy claims: that infinite dilutions of a substance, to the point where not a single molecule remains, have a medical benefit; that water ‘remembers’ the substances that were in it in the past; and that a substance that causes a symptom will, when diluted, cure that same symptom. Thus (for example) poison ivy can cure itching.”

Salzberg says these claims violate basic principles of physics, chemistry, and biology. The idea that water remembers what was in it is almost comically wrong – and it also implies that every sip of water you take “remembers” virtually every substance on the planet, although homeopaths appear not to recognise this.

Yet, he writes: “homeopathic ‘drugs’ are a multi-billion dollar business today; the FDA estimated that consumers spent $2.9bn on homeopathic remedies in 2007, the last year for which they reported numbers.”

The FDA held a public hearing last March, and the FTC held their public workshop in September. They solicited and received over 500 comments, both pro and con. Most of the pro-homeopathy comments boil down to “it worked for me” or “people have been using this stuff for years”; in other words, anecdotes and testimonials.

The con-homeopathy comments described scientific studies showing that homeopathy simply doesn’t work. These include a thorough review conducted by the Australian government last year, which concluded: “There are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.”

Salberg writes: “If the FDA won’t (or can’t) stop homeopaths from selling their modern snake oil, at least we can slap labels on them saying they don’t work. If consumers want to buy a product that the government says doesn’t work, well, it’s their money.”

Business Insider report
FTC policy statement
Forbes report

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