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FTC takes action against the homeopathy industry's false and misleading health claims

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has announced that it intends to finally take action against homeopathic "medicine" manufacturers who make bogus — indeed, ridiculous — health claims for their products.

The commission has had the authority to take such action before, but it has tended to turn a blind eye to the multibillion-dollar homeopathic industry’s continuous stream of misleading advertising.

Most homeopathic medicines are just innocuous “sugar pills,” or placebos, which pose more of a peril to consumers’ pocketbooks than to their health. But some of these products can be dangerous. In late September, for example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned parents to stop using homeopathic teething tablets and gels. The agency said it had received hundreds of reports of babies experiencing serious side effects after using the products, including vomiting, fever, breathing difficulties and seizures. Officials were also investigating 10 reports of infant deaths.

The teething products may have contained unsafe amounts of a popular homeopathic ingredient, belladonna (which is also known as deadly nightshade). Most consumers are unaware that homeopathic products — along with other so-called alternative medicines — are not tested for safety or effectiveness before they appear on store shelves. 

Of course, another danger from homeopathic medicines is that people will use them instead of real medicines to treat serious illnesses. Such a tragedy occurred in Australia a few years ago when a nine-month-old girl died painfully and unnecessarily after her parents treated her eczema with homeopathic rather than conventional medications. (Both parents were jailed for manslaughter.) 

Clear disclosure

As explained in a press release issued Tuesday, the FTC will now “hold efficacy and safety claims for OTC [over-the-counter] homeopathic drugs to the same standard as other products making similar claims. That is, companies must have competent and reliable scientific evidence for health-related claims, including claims that a product can treat specific conditions” — the same scientific evidence the commission requires of other companies making such claims for their products.

The companies will also have to clearly disclose on their products’ labels and in their advertisements that 1) there is no scientific evidence that the homeopathic product works and 2) theories of homeopathy date from the 1700s and are not accepted by most modern medical experts.

Just how effective these disclaimers will be is unknown. The FTC says it’s going to “carefully scrutinize the net impression of OTC homeopathic advertising or other marketing employing disclosures to ensure that it adequately conveys the extremely limited nature of the health claim being asserted.”

“If, despite a marketer’s disclosures, an ad conveys more substantiation than the marketer has, the marketer will be in violation of the FTC Act,” the commission adds.

Utterly useless

And there is absolutely no scientific substantiation to any claims that homeopathic products are “medicines.” As I’ve explained in Second Opinion before, homeopathy is based on the totally discredited 250-year-old idea that a substance that causes symptoms can be used, in a highly diluted form, to treat those symptoms.

The substances are diluted to the point where, as British physician and homeopathic skeptic Dr. Ben Goldacre has noted, “it equates to one molecule of the substance in a sphere of water whose diameter is roughly the distance from the earth to the sun.” 

Homeopathic teething gel
Homeopathic teething gel

Study after study has shown homeopathy is utterly useless for the prevention and treatment of any illness. One major meta-analysis that examined homeopathy’s effects on 68 different ailments — including colds and flu, asthma, migraine headaches, osteoarthritis, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, back pain and heroin addiction — found absolutely no evidence that the treatments were effective.

As one British doctor stated a few years ago, homeopathy “is pernicious nonsense that feeds into a rising wave of irrationality which threatens to overwhelm the hard-won gains of the enlightenment and the scientific method.”

"We risk, as a society, slipping back into a state of magical thinking when made-up science passes for rational discourse and wishing for something to be true passes for proof,” he added.

Let’s hope the FTC’s decision, although long overdue, will bring some people back to rational discourse — at least on this topic. 

FMI:  You can read the FTC’s “Homeopathic Medicine & Advertising Report” on the commission’s website.

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