FDA reportedly will take on homeopathy

We all know that homeopathy is a complete scam. Its conceptual basis alone renders it at once laughable and scary, while studies of its efficacy always show nothing above placebo effects. And yet the stuff is sold where apparently intelligent people shop, including Whole Foods and the Davis, California Food Coop, a place I used to shop as a postdoc. The homeopathic “remedies” in those places also make health claims, something that I always thought was illegal.

Well, according to both DeadState and BuzzFeed (the latter is apparently getting more serious), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US is set to take some regulatory action. The BuzzFeed piece, by Dan Vergano (who used to be my editor at USA Today), is actually quite good, giving, along with the news, a history of homeopathy and the evidence that it doesn’t work. An excerpt:

Homeopathic drugs are not subject to much regulatory scrutiny. The FDA ensures that their manufacturing facilities are clean, but the products are not evaluated for their health claims. (This is even less regulation than what’s required for dietary supplements, vitamins, herbs, and minerals, which face some limits on the health claims they can make.)

But that may change. This month, both the FDA, which oversees drug safety, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which oversees drug ads, will end lengthy public comment periods that followed hearings on homeopathy. The FTC [Federal Trade Commission] smacked its sister drug-safety agency in public comments in August, calling for the FDA to crack down on homeopathic products, which “may harm consumers.”

About damn time! The harm is not just that they sometimes contain stuff that can actually harm people (like high levels of ethanol, or, in teething tablets, toxic levels of belladonna), but also that they can eat up time when sick people resort to ineffective homeopathic nostrums instead of scientific cures. (I’ve described already how a French friend with salivary-gland cancer tried to treat it homeopathically, but it got worse and he finally needed an operation. He appears to be okay now, thank Ceiling Cat).

But of course the quackery has its defenders, as always:

Still, homeopathy’s supporters say these remedies have a much better safety record than conventional drugs, along with millions of satisfied customers.

“We believe they are proven to be effective and extremely safe,” Ronald Whitmont, an internist at the New York Medical College and president of the American Institute of Homeopathy, told BuzzFeed News. The institute has been around since 1844 (longer than the American Medical Association), publishes its own research journal, and has certified dozens of physicians as “homeotherapeutics” specialists.

. . . But both Whitmont and Mark Land, president of the American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists, support FDA and FTC moves to change the labels on homeopathic drugs and advertising to acknowledge they haven’t been tested for efficacy, similar to dietary supplements.

That would still keep homeopathic drugs on pharmacy shelves, however. Homeopathy “historically relies on recommendations from highly satisfied customers to influence sales,” Land told BuzzFeed News by email. “It’s an outstanding example of the U.S. free market.”

No, it’s an outstanding example of how unethical companies take example of people’s ignorance and credulity. It’s time to remove all claims of efficacy from these “drugs”, slap big warning labels on them, or, best yet, just remove them from pharmacy shelves. Companies like Whole Foods that sell homeopathic remedies should be ashamed of themselves.

h/t: Barry

32 Comments

  1. Geoff Toscano
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Interesting in that just yesterday the BBC reported that the NHS in the UK is considering withdrawing funding for homeopathic remedies. And the same bleating from those who rely on the woo for income.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-34806621

    • Graham Martin-Royle
      Posted November 14, 2015 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Apparently the NHS has to get the best value for money option which, as far as homeopathy is concerned is to turn on the nearest tap. 🙂

    • Posted November 14, 2015 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      Unfortunately we still have the BBC on the Today program yesterday giving air-time to Peter Fisher (the Queen’s ‘magic jester’, as someone once called him because of his role as the Queen’s homeopath) to spout his confused arguments. Fisher plainly doesn’t understand the notion of science-based medicine.

      At one point when challenged that any improved outcomes were purely placebo he complained that the questioner was moving the goalposts, suggesting that any improvement was to be welcomed, even if just placebo. Well, the problems with that are legion, but soon after he goes against this implication and declares that homeopathy is not just placebo. So why complain when the interviewer asked if they were just placebo?

      He is simply in the game to obfuscate and defend his pet treatment from attack, for who knows what reason, though one can speculate.

      @1:34:00 here:

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06ns4gc

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted November 14, 2015 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      The world is large, but it seems Sweden is set to make a similar move according to an article that made its way to my feeds a week ago. It is a site that is read only if you are not working in medicine or pharmacy, but the opinion piece refers to an expected (leaked?) government decision not to give special relief to homeopathic medicine from this year on.

      Apparently the support to give relief from the usual criteria for medicine has waned over the 3 decades that antroposophic schools pushed their – religious, notes the article – exception. Läkemedelsverket (the swedish FDA/NHS) has surveyed the question for the government, and everyone is now against. [ http://www.dagensmedicin.se/blogg/mats-reimer/2015/11/04/snart-faller-bilan-for-de-antroposofiska-medicinerna/?acceptCookies=true ]

      And yes, the article describes the same bleating here too.

      It seems the pharmacists want to put the remedies under the same law, with requirements on effects and safety, as all other medicine. They “confirm positively the moral challenge of denying a few patients the option to use these products.” [They then indirectly refer to placebo effects in combination with anthroposophic institutions, which I take to mean that they suggest these patients will continue to be subjected to much the same placebo effect in the absence of the scam remedies. http://www.sverigesfarmaceuter.se/Documents/2015/Remissvar%202015/Dnr%20S2013-8560-FS.pdf ]

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted November 14, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        I guess if you want to make a punny, in Sweden (globally!?) the effect strength of support for homeopathy has become diluted into vanishing.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted November 14, 2015 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      Australian pharmacists are no longer allowed to sell them, and New Zealand groups (including one I’m a very small part of) are trying to get the same law introduced here.

      They shouldn’t be in pharmacies because it gives people the idea they’re a genuine medical treatment.

    • Posted November 16, 2015 at 5:22 am | Permalink

      Some more background from Edzard Ernst on Peter Fisher’s peculiar comments:

      http://edzardernst.com/2015/11/heis-the-queens-homeopath-a-liar/

  2. Filippo
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    ‘Homeopathy “historically relies on recommendations from highly satisfied customers to influence sales,” Land told BuzzFeed News by email. “It’s an outstanding example of the U.S. free market.” ‘

    But of course, the market is the ultimate, rational arbiter of drug efficacy, not science. Ergo, per some, abolish the FDA (and OSHA).

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted November 14, 2015 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      I really need to write that post that’s been in my head for months about how the free market is not a good model for health care.

      • Sshort
        Posted November 14, 2015 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

        Heather, would you please write and share your observations and insights. It would be a great help.

        We have such an obviously and heinously distorted system here in the U.S. And a completely calculated and configured mix of oligarchy along with a credulous low-information citizenry that renders any reasonable solution impossible.

        The business of america is business. The dollar votes, not the people.

  3. TM
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    “Still, homeopathy’s supporters say these remedies have a much better safety record than conventional drugs”

    Yea, placebos have no side effects

    • Geoff Toscano
      Posted November 14, 2015 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      “Yea, placebos have no side effects”

      They certainly do if you actually have something that requires real treatment.

    • Posted November 16, 2015 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      Not true: it is known there is something called the “nocebo effect” as well.

  4. GBJames
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Long overdue.

  5. Randy Schenck
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Dr. Oz and his followers will be unhappy as will the republicans who would do away with most govt. agencies.

  6. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Well, this could be sort of good news. But if I understand it this means that this quackery will then continue, virtually unabated aside from being made a bit safer. Since they will continue to be sold, they will now be effectively immune to being expunged except by market forces.

  7. Ken Phelps
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    David Smalley of Dogma Debate recently released a video in which his 11 year old daughter went into a CVS and purchased a bottle of some homeopathic nostrum containing 20% ethanol.

    Can’t link to it as it is on the site as a bonus for subscribers. Recent DD episode on homeopathy in general is on iTunes, however. Haven’t listened to it yet, so can’t vouch for quality. DD can be an acquired taste.

  8. Posted November 14, 2015 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    One thing that homeopathy does very effectively is illustrate the term fractal wrongness: “the state of being wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution.”

    Skeptics tend to focus on the implausibility of the dilutions, but their beliefs about human physiology are even more ridiculous.

  9. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Wikipedia notes that several European countries cover homeopathy in their national health plans, and in some you need to study 3 years to get a license to administer it. YOW.

  10. Steve Gerrard
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    The FTC should just require fair labelling, as they do for even my toothpaste. So something like:

    Active Ingredient:
    0.000000000000001%
    Water:
    99.999999999999999%

    People might catch on then.

    • Filippo
      Posted November 14, 2015 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      I wonder how many decimal places to the right of the decimal are required before one gets to less than a one atom/molecule per bottle concentration of homeopathic remedy.

      What do delusional homeopath zealots say about that? That the fluid somehow “retains a memory”?

      • rickflick
        Posted November 14, 2015 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        “one atom/molecule per bottle concentration…”
        I’d think that level would be impossible to test for. It would measure the same as no atom/molecule in any test I can imagine.(P.S. But, I am not a chemist)

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 14, 2015 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

          It is, of course, practically impossible to reach that low a concentration of active ingredients. Allowable impurities in even the purest distilled water will far exceed those concentrations.

          For example, drinking water standards allow .01 mg/L arsenic, 0.6mg/L cyanides, .007 mg/L mercury, yadda yadda.

          (NZ, other countries probably similar)

          I suppose those impurities are present in low enough concentrations to not kill you instantly, but not sufficiently low to engage their homeopathic effectiveness. The water treatment plant operators must be very coscientious to prevent the cyanides from accidentally dropping to .0000000001% and killing all their consumers.

          cr

          • rickflick
            Posted November 14, 2015 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

            “The water treatment plant operators must be very conscientious to prevent the cyanides from accidentally dropping to .0000000001% and killing all their consumers”

            Yes, that would be a worry.

  11. Posted November 14, 2015 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Just an addition to the label: “Proven to be ineffective.” should do.

  12. Posted November 14, 2015 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    I’d love to see more regulation on this. My parents waste so much time, effort, and money on homeopathy when they should be seein ga doctor.

  13. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Well, they are undoubtedly totally safe so long as they are 100% homeopathic and don’t contain any non-homeopathic ingredients.

    And they will certainly be beneficial for topical use in very large doses where there is a risk of dehydration.

    cr

  14. loren russell
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Nice if there’s even a bit of truth in labelling to come in this round. But don’t expect a sea change. I recall the blogger known as ORAC mentioning that the FDA review board for homeopathy being heavily skewed for representatives of homeopathic and naturopathic manufacturers and “professionals”.

    Also, I understand that FDA is hamstrung by the homeopathic formulas being grandfathered in by 1930s legislation.

  15. Diane G.
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    sub

  16. Christopher Bonds
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    If everyone were a skeptic and a critical thinker, homeopathy would die on the vine and there would be no need for regulation from the FDA. The fact it exists at all is testimony to the fact that people are still gullible and easily fooled; or rather, they have a superstitious faith that because someone says a homeopathic remedy works, it will work for them. And that stuff isn’t cheap, either.

    So I suppose there is need for regulation, but the real disease–lack of critical thinking–still goes untreated.

  17. Mike
    Posted November 15, 2015 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    In the UK we have Homeopathic Treatments on the NHS for CCs sake and the reason I think is because the Windsors believe in it, especially Mrs Windsor and her eldest Charlie, personally, I think we should dispense with both !

  18. Posted November 16, 2015 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Good for the FDA. Perhaps we Canadians can get Health Canada on board.


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