Hey Canada, let’s stop the homeopathy lie
Last week, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a guideline that requires all homeopathic products to have a label that says they don’t work.
Specifically, the FTC states that homeopathic products – which are, to be absolutely clear, nothing more than water or sugar pills – “must be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence” or the label must say “there is no scientific evidence that the product works.”
This is a ridiculously sensible move. Homeopathy, a practice meant to treat disease symptoms through non-existent doses of substances that (allegedly) produce similar symptoms, has become a multi-billion dollar industry, is one of many popular complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) products that have been thoroughly and consistently debunked.
There is no credible evidence that homeopathy works for any health condition. More important, homeopathy is scientifically preposterous .
Bottom line: Homeopathy doesn’t work and there is no way it could work, at least beyond producing a placebo effect. It is pure quackery.
If we believe that science should play a role in how health providers and products are regulated, than the new FTC policy is simply a long overdue application of a logical policy. For the FTC to do otherwise is to allow manufacturers and CAM providers to lie, explicitly or implicitly, about the efficacy of a product.
Unfortunately, this kind of deception (and, given the well-known state of the science, this can only be described as either the conscious deception of the public or self-delusion on the part of the proprietor) is all too common in Canada.
In fact, it has been institutionalized.
Due to Health Canada’s relatively lax regulations, many pharmacies sell homeopathic products that make claims of therapeutic benefit that would clearly infringe the new FTC policy.
In addition, provincial governments have done much to facilitate the spread of unscientific CAM services. In Ontario, for instance, there is a College of Homeopaths – an entity created and surreally legitimized by provincial legislation. In addition, homeopathy is one of the most common services provided by naturopaths, a CAM practice that has enjoyed a recent uptick in provincial support.
A quick scan of websites for Canadian naturopathic clinics finds numerous examples of misleading claims about the efficacy of homeopathy and other bogus services. Worse, many of the claims made on these websites relate to the use of a homeopathic product as an alternative to vaccination.
Let’s reverse this trend. Let’s take steps to ensure that the Canadian public gets scientifically accurate information about the healthcare products and services they are buying.
There are numerous regulatory tools that can be used, right now, to help curtail the spread of misleading health information.
In Canada, informed consent law demands an honest disclosure of the relevant evidence. This is something a reasonable person in the patient’s position would want to know, a standard that applies to physicians, pharmacists and many other healthcare professions.
Profession regulators – such as the provincial colleges that govern healthcare professionals – have the ability (and, I would argue, the stated mandate) to sanction providers that offer evidence-free products, such as homeopathy. If a physician, a nurse or, even, a naturopath ) use misleading language to advertise an unproven therapy or product, that individual should be sanctioned.
Finally, as highlighted by the new FTC policy, truth-in-advertising laws and policies can be used to set and enforce a science-informed standard of disclosure.
To be fair, it seems doubtful that the step by the FTC will have a dramatic impact on the uptake of homeopathic remedies by those who already believe they are efficacious.
History tells us that it is very difficult to convince people to change their views about CAM health. Research has shown that evidence that demonstrates a lack of efficacy rarely has an impact on consumer behaviour. And, as noted by Alan Levinovitz, author of The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What We Eat, the FTC disclaimer may not be enough to dissuade believers, particularly those who buy into Big-Pharma-and-the-government conspiracy theories.
Still, I like the FTC move. Long term, it seems the only way forward. The public should not be actively deceived.
Of course, there are many other CAM procedures that fall into the same scientifically-preposterous category occupied by homeopathy, including energy healing practices like Reiki and the idea that you need to (and can) detoxify your body. But targeting homeopathy is a darn good start.
So, Canada, let’s all follow the FTC lead and stop the tolerance and facilitation of homeopathic bunk.
Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, University of Alberta, a Trudeau Fellow and author of “Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture And Science Clash” (Penguin, 2015).