For the CBC on December 11, 2016.
Until recently, homeopathic remedies sold in the United States enjoyed many of the same privileges — including the freedom to claim they could treat or cure specific ailments or diseases — as real, science-based medicine. The difference? Peddlers of homeopathy weren’t required to provide the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with any evidence whatsoever to substantiate the miraculous therapeutic claims their products made. The same has largely been the case in Canada.
It was an abhorrent oversight by agencies tasked to protect consumers’ well-being, and one that only now being addressed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In a statement issued last month, the FTC announced that homeopathic remedies, like all medications sold, must provide “competent and reliable scientific evidence” for all health-related claims, including, most importantly, “claims that a product can treat specific conditions.”
Absent that, in the U.S., homeopathic drugs will have to wear a label indicating 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 modern medical experts.”
Homeopathy is, as Steven Novella, academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, unambiguously describes it, an “unadulterated pseudoscience … a prescientific medical philosophy.”
Its underpinning theory is that “like cures like.” Homeopathic drugs are made using trace elements of substances that cause symptoms in healthy people. Those elements are then diluted entirely out of existence, priced at a premium and sold as inert “remedies.” Infinite dilutions of poison ivy would be sold as the treatment for a persistent itch or chronic rash, for instance.
The idea is that water carries a “memory” of substances it has come into contact with — a theory that defies the basic principles of biology, physics, and chemistry. To find a single molecule of active substance in a 30C homeopathic solution (the dilution level of many over-the-counter homeopathic treatments), for instance, American physicist Robert L. Park notes you’d require a container of water greater than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth.
Homeopathy is a lucrative business: we’re talking one where American consumers spend in excess of $3 billion per year. Yet the most comprehensive evaluation of homeopathy to date — a review of evidence from 225 studies, which met the required rigour of some 1800 published papers — concluded “there is no reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective for treating health conditions.”
The ‘natural’ choice
No amount of evidence will be sufficient to sway those hopelessly indoctrinated into pseudoscience, but many who turn to alternative medicine are driven by honest misunderstanding of how the body functions and how medicine works. Some are also driven by the appeal to nature — a seductive fallacy which argues that “natural” is inherently good, therapeutic, and pure — based on the notion that homeopathy is a natural choice.
Yet “natural” versus “synthetic” is a fundamentally false, meaningless comparison. Raspberry ketone, for instance, a purported natural “miracle fat-burner,” is a chemical extracted from various fruits and berries. It can also be synthetically made, then known as p-Hydroxybenzyl acetone. But whether “naturally sourced” or synthetically derived, it’s still C10H12O2 — a single chemical, with a set arrangement of atoms that behave in the same, identical manner. Not one, mind you, that involves “miracle fat-burning.”
That’s likely too esoteric for the average consumer, but clear labels indicating a lack of scientific backing surely is not. Canada, however, has only gone so far as to require labels for nosode products (which are touted as vaccines) and homeopathic remedies for cough, cold and flu marketed to children 12 and under. Everything else can stand on pharmacy shelves, right next to legitimate medicine, and sold as fanciful medicinal alternatives. Fortunately, Health Canada has just recently signalled that it’s ready to start cracking down on claims that have not be scientifically proven.
Health professionals have been in the trenches of this dystopia for some time — their fight for reason made increasingly difficult by governments’ own normalizing of pseudoscience. Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, has rightly called for Health Canada to follow the FTC’s lead in requiring proper labelling to “ensure the Canadian public gets scientifically accurate information about the health care products and services they are buying.”
This isn’t complicated. Holding practitioners of alternative medicine — and the products they sell — to the same rigorous standards we apply to physicians, pharmacists and all other certified healthcare professionals is certainly not asking too much. If the U.S. can do it, why can’t we?