How Far Should the Government Go to Protect Us from Snake Oil? The Case of Homeopathy.

What to do about homeopathy? A Reason Foundation board member (who shall remain nameless) has neat parlor trick that he pulls from time to time. He will theatrically down an ENTIRE BOTTLE of homeopathic sleeping pills. Unwitting witnesses will sometimes gasp in worry, but he quickly uses the occasion to explain the quackery behind homeopathy. 

I don't know which brand of homeopathic sleeping pill he prefers, but let's take the product Quietude offered by Boiron, one of the leading purveyors homeopathic remedies. The pills contain four "active" ingredients, e.g., Hyoscyamus niger, Nux moschata, Passiflora incarnata, and Stramonium. In more prosaic English, the ingredients are from stinking nightshade (a.k.a. black henbane), nutmeg, purple passionflower, and jimson weed. 

Homeopathy was dreamed up by a German physican Samuel Hahnemann at around the turn of the 19th century. Without going into details, Hahnemann got the idea that if substance induced symptoms similar to a disease then dosing a patient with small amounts (minimum dose) of the substance would cure the patient. How small? As a proponent of homeopathy explains:

With the minimum dose, or law of infinitesimals, Hahnemann believed that a substance's strength and effectiveness increased the more it was diluted. Minuscule doses were prepared by repeatedly diluting the active ingredient by factors of 10. A "6X" preparation (the X is the Roman numeral for 10) is a 1-to-10 dilution repeated six times, leaving the active ingredient as one part per million. Essential to the process of increasing potency while decreasing the actual amount of the active ingredient is vigorous shaking after each dilution.

Some homeopathic remedies are so dilute, no molecules of the healing substance remain. Even with sophisticated technology now available, analytical chemists may find it difficult or impossible to identify any active ingredient. But the homeopathic belief is that the substance has left its imprint or a spirit-like essence that stimulates the body to heal itself.

Let's take a look at the dosages of the "active" ingredients in Quietude. It turns out that this homepathic remedy contains slighly more than one-100 mllionth of the active ingredient in henbane (even the EPA allows more arsenic in drinking water than this amount of henbane); one-ten-millionth of nutmeg; one-thousandth of passionflower; and a bit more than one-100 billionth of the active ingredient in jimson weed. 

Given those dosages, I do not fear that we will lose our board member to an overdose or even that he will get a good night's rest from downing homeopathic sleeping pills. 

Now comes a petition [PDF] from the Center for Inquiry to the Food and Drug Administration asking the agency ... 

to initiate a rulemaking procedure with the proposed rule: 1. requiring all over-the-counter ("OTC") homeopathic drugs meet the standards of effectiveness applicable to non-homeopathic OTC drugs; and 2. requiring OTC homeopathic drugs not tested for effectiveness, and all advertisements for such drugs, to carry a warning label stating: WARNING: The FDA has not determined that this product is safe, effective, and not misbranded for its intended use."  

As the Center correctly points out ... 

First, there is no reliable scientific evidence that the alleged active ingredients in homeopathic drugs cure the diseases and conditions for which they are indicated. Indeed, as discussed further below, homeopathic “theory” is premised on the magical notion that very small doses of substances that cause disease symptoms can alleviate those same symptoms.

Second, producers of homeopathic drugs typically dilute the drugs’ alleged active ingredients in solution to the point that the solution contains, on average, not a single molecule of the alleged active ingredient. In other words, what the producers and retailers of homeopathic drugs market as “medications” are nothing more than solutions that are devoid of active ingredients (often the solutions are simply water), which then have been combined with various inactive ingredients, such as balls of ordinary sugar.

As the Center's petition notes, sales of homeopathic remedies in the U.S. reached $870 million in 2009 and were used by nearly 5 million Americans. The Center's concern is that consumers will suffer harm, perhaps even death, by being misled into taking ineffective homeopathic remedies rather than more effective medications. 

Here's the issue: Are homeopathic remedies fraudulent? The scientific evidence [PDF] strongly indicates that they are ineffective. Libertarians generally agree that government exists to protect citizens against force or fraud. As the Libertarian Party Platform puts it

Government exists to protect the rights of every individual including life, liberty and property. Criminal laws should be limited to violation of the rights of others through force or fraud, or deliberate actions that place others involuntarily at significant risk of harm. Individuals retain the right to voluntarily assume risk of harm to themselves.

Ah, but look at the last quoted sentence from the platform concerning the voluntary assumption of risk. Is choosing to take a homeopathic nostrum a voluntary assumption of risk? It would be if the consumer knows what is in homeopathic dilutions (basically nothing) and surely some consumers do know how such pills are made. One can argue that mandating an FDA warning label would not stop the sale of snake oil, but it would inform otherwise clueless consumers that based on scientific evidence their government regards homeopathic remedies as snake oil. If they proceeded to purchase and rely on the homeopathic pills after being warned, that would more clearly indicate their voluntary assumption of risk.

So what do you think? 

Disclosure: The Center for Inquiry has paid my travel expenses to participate in their conferences on two occasions. I do own stocks purchased with my own funds in drug companies that make and sell government-approved medicines that are allegedly effective. 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    and jimson weed

    But Carlos Castaneda smoked jimson weed and Don Juan had to grab him before he fell through a wall! How is this possible?!?

  • Brett L||

    The first book was a spectacular sendup of the contemporary anthropologist culture of the time. Then he started making money and writing ever more egregious craziness.

  • sarcasmic||

    With the minimum dose, or law of infinitesimals, Hahnemann believed that a substance's strength and effectiveness increased the more it was diluted.

    Anyone with a dearth of common sense enough to believe that deserves whatever they get.

  • CatoTheElder||

    Well, Obamatons actually believe that PelosiCare will bend the cost curve.

    Maybe these two phenomena are related.

    Either way, taxpayers get stuck with the bill.

  • Metazoan||

    Hm, this is an interesting point. My instincts tell me that the FDA should not get further involved; in fact, I think the FDA is too involved with real drug approvals. Perhaps if an enterprising non-profit (or group thereof) would like to perform the studies (like how UL works with electrical equipment) and give an "approval stamp" for anything that actually worked, and place on a list online anything that didn't, people would have the opportunity to learn about homeopathy without coercion.

    Of course, I don't forsee many stamps of approval being given out.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    He will theatrically down an ENTIRE BOTTLE of homeopathic sleeping pills.

    It's Sullum, isn't it? His body is probably completely tolerant of any number of drugs at this point.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Oh, wait, board member? Are the Koch's board members? They have enough money to buy themselves out of an overdose. The rich get richer and the poor OD.

  • Bee Tagger||

    They use the livers of poor people when ingesting drugs.

  • Keith Richards||

    That's right, mate. The poor should use only pure, pharmaceutical-grade drugs, like me.

  • Chet Desmond||

    Nah, that sounds like something Penn Jillette would do.

  • Discord||

    It's James Randi, he does this all the time. He has a TED presentation where he does this.

  • goober1223||

    James Randi is a Reason Foundation board member?! Is he afraid of losing his cred with the strictly atheist liberals who hate libertarians?

  • Discord||

    Bah, should have read just a BIT further, lol.

  • ||

    The solution would seem to fall under the 'prevention of fraud' aspects of the law.
    There are better mechanisms for dealing with fraud than the FDA...

    no hugs for thugs,
    Shirley Knott

  • ||

    I agree. If idiots are happy buying the stuff, and manufacturers are obviously happy to keep churning out the stuff, then why should the government get involved?

    If somebody has been defrauded, there are plenty of lawyers who would be more than happy to file a class-action lawsuit. Given all the bullshit class actions that are filed, it would be nice to see a credible one filed once in a while.

  • robc||

    [comment just for CMS]

    I should dilute the amount of roast barley in my schwarzbier in order to make it stronger.

  • Brett L||

    Doesn't MillerCoors already make homeopathic beer?

  • ||

    Sorry, Rob, but Brett L wins this round.

  • Brad Warbiany||

    Please send me some of that schwartzbier. I shall dilute it with a solution of saliva and stomach acid before diluting it into the sewer system where it will become unbelievably powerful!

    (Fellow homebrewer here -- first lager [oktoberfestbier] sitting in the fermenter... Thank you for reminding me how much I like schwartzbier, as I can see myself making one soon now that I do lagers).

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Fraud? They got exactly the ingredients they expected to purchase, didn't they?

  • Brian||

    Under false pretenses if the product claimed to cure anything.

  • SIV||

    Caveat emptor

    Is it fraud when "real medicine" fails to cure anything?

  • ||

    Actually they don't. As mentioned in the article- the higher dilutions don't even contain a single molecule of the active ingredient listed on the label.

  • ||

    I think the FDA has no business involving itself in the promotion, sale, or use of harmless OTC concoctions.

  • robc||

    I think the FDA has no business involving itself in the promotion, sale, or use of harmless OTC concoctions.

    FTFY

  • robc||

    Dammit, my strike didnt work. Trying again.

    I think the FDA has no business involving itself in the promotion, sale, or use of harmless OTC concoctions.

  • ||

    Homeopathic medicine is stupid, but not fraud. No more so than a church telling its members they will go to heaven is fraud.

  • Metazoan||

    I guess the difference is that homeopathy is testable; "going to heaven" is not.

  • ||

    There are plenty of religious beliefs that are testable.

  • goober1223||

    The effectiveness of prayer, for one. Though, there are plenty of excuses explanations for that, based on what prayer is actually for (to change the pray-er (acceptance) to change the situation that you are actually praying for).

  • ||

    As one priest put it in a sermon I heard: "Sometimes God's answer is 'No.'"

  • ||

    Here's another:

    "The stimulus would have worked if it was bigger!"

  • ||

    Depending on the facts, I would disagree. If the product asserts that it can cure something, and there's no credible evidence to substantiate the claim, that's pretty much a textbook definition of consumer fraud.

    Now if the product says something along the lines of "There is no scientific evidence that this works; use at your own risk," then I would agree that there's no fraud.

  • sarcasmic||

    I'm pretty sure they have something along the lines of "This has not been approved by the FDA to treat any illness" or some such disclaimer.

    They've got lawyers.

  • ||

    I'm actually one of those lawyers (though I do most of my work for a large pharma company that has actual scientists developing their drugs). While I'm sure they have such disclaimers in tiny print, there are ways for plaintiffs' lawyers to get around them, especially the "not approved by the FDA" language. If you make affirmative claims, the fact that FDA hasn't verified them doesn't render you immune to state consumer fraud statutes.

  • sevo||

    "If you make affirmative claims, the fact that FDA hasn't verified them doesn't render you immune to state consumer fraud statutes."

    Yes, but the claims can be such that you might think they're affirmative when they're so much BS.
    Example (headline on womens' cosmetic ad): "Removes the worries of wrinkles".

  • Fluffy||

    The affirmative claim in this case is effectively spiritual.

    The people buying these remedies are specifically doing so due to their animosity towards scientific medicine and, you know, sane standards of proof.

    Basically you're saying that anti-science and anti-medicine fools shouldn't be allowed to indulge themselves in magical remedies that they're seeking out precisely because they're magical. And that seems silly to me.

  • ||

    That's not what I'm saying at all. What I'm saying is that there MAY be people who are actually defrauded by unsubstantiated claims, and if they can prove that to be the case then they should have the courts available as a means to seek compensation. Anti-science folks can indulge themselves all they want so long as they're not being defrauded. I find that to be a suitable alternative to regulation.

  • ||

    It's always a bad idea to start protecting imaginary people from themselves. i.e. "there MAY be people who are actually defrauded by unsubstantiated claims"

  • Some Guy||

    I am fine with allowing these quacks to sell whatever they want to people stupid enough to buy it, but I am also fine with the FDA preventing them from making fraudulent claims on the label.

  • Jeff P||

    The Gov't has been giving us false ineffective solutions to non-problems for decades, so they are uniquely suited to deal with this.

  • Warty||

    A Reason Foundation board member (who shall remain nameless) has neat parlor trick that he pulls from time to time.

    I didn't know James Randi was a Reason board member. I hope he comments here. Do you think he's White Indian?

  • rts||

    I don't think this can be answered generally and depends on exactly the claims being made (on the bottle/by salesmen/in commercials/etc).

  • ||

    I've worked with my doctor on this, and have gotten good results from homeopathic medicine. The mistake is in thinking that it works like the poisons that big pharma sells us. If you don't have an issue with sleeping then the remedy won't do anything.

    In any case, it's my own business. Stay the fuck out of it.

  • sarcasmic||

  • sarcasmic||

    From link:

    Referring specifically to homeopathy, the House of Commons of the United Kingdom Science and Technology Committee has stated:


    In the Committee’s view, homeopathy is a placebo treatment and the Government should have a policy on prescribing placebos. The Government is reluctant to address the appropriateness and ethics of prescribing placebos to patients, which usually relies on some degree of patient deception. Prescribing of placebos is not consistent with informed patient choice-which the Government claims is very important-as it means patients do not have all the information needed to make choice meaningful.

    Beyond ethical issues and the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship, prescribing pure placebos is bad medicine. Their effect is unreliable and unpredictable and cannot form the sole basis of any treatment on the NHS.[3]
  • ||

    The very last people who will be able to change my mind on this or any subject is the fucking government.

  • ||

    Seriously?

    Are you serious?

  • sarcasmic||

    Even a broken clock...

  • Xenocles||

    If you can know the facts behind what homeopathy is and still believe that it has an effect external to your imagination, I don't think anyone at all can change your mind. Doesn't hurt me, though, so enjoy.

  • ||

    (Little white tag on toy Superman cape):
    "Warning: Cape will not allow wearer to fly"

    If you think a little toy cape will let you fly, you're not going to let a little white tag stop you.

  • ||

    Would the fact that the major manufacturer of Homeopathic remedies is actually part of the Russian Mob sway your thinking?

  • ||

    Why should it?

  • Zeb||

    The placebo effect is very real. If something works for you, then it works, even if it is bullshit. I sort of feel the same way about psychotherapy and that sort of thing. It's probably mostly bullshit, but if it makes people fell better, then good for them.

  • ||

    If you tell a "patient" that you're prescribing a placebo, it's no longer a placebo and the effect is lost. The magic is in the brain not the water.

    Let 'em be.

  • A Secret Band of Robbers||

    Wasn't there a study where patients who knew they were getting the placebo showed improvement when their doctors explained they could get some benefit anyway?

  • Robert||

    More than one such study, in fact.\

    "Placebo" just means "I please". Not all placebos are medically inert.

  • Ice Nine||

    If you don't have an issue with sleeping then the remedy won't do anything.

    Why? Who says? Why shouldn't it? With respect, that sounds like something you just pulled out of your ass.

  • ||

    Read up on how it works. I will not do your research for you.

  • Ice Nine||

    Where - in the homeopathic literature? ROTFL

  • Joe||

    Third party rating agencies would be much more effective at investigating and studying the effectiveness and safety of medicines, including homeopathy. Having competing rating agencies would offer a much more efficient and useful way for consumers to check supplements. Nowadays it is easy to check the effectiveness of any supplement by using the Internet.

  • Brandon||

    I would like to start a company to rate the effectiveness of those competing rating agencies. I wonder where the FDA would fall in comparison with, say, UL?

  • ||

    They'd shut you down for competing with the government monopoly.

  • ||

    Even if a consumer bought homeopathic medicine because of the claim of its effectiveness, this would not be a matter to be solved by an arbitrary regulatory agency but by the courts. Let the courts decide fraud on a case-by-case basis.

  • ||

    The irony is that the regulation, or at least quasi-regulation, of homeopathic drugs can actually close off access to the courts under the theory of preemption. Legal nerds can read more about it here.

  • Some Guy||

    Let the courts decide fraud on a case-by-case basis.

    Yes, 12 random people with no medical background are ideally suited for this task.

  • I, Kahn O'Clast||

    So James Randi is a board member? Nice.

    As for homeopathy it is clearly nonsense. But the government has no role regulating the harmless. Fraud, yes, but this is a fraud of complicity, not coercion. Should the government shut down pro-wrestling? Of course not even as some fraction of the audience actually believes that what is going on is real. Homeopathy is placebo. So what?

    Now, I know people who believe that water has memory: of time, of events, of people and for them homeopathy fits perfectly in their weird world-view. But then again they also believe in the chem-trail conspiracy....

  • sarcasmic||

    I know people who listen to Coast to Coast Radio as well.

  • -||

    Most of the guests and callers are con artists, but a few of them seem to believe their own nonsense.

  • sarcasmic||

    It does make for great entertainment.
    The Lizard People are my favorite.

  • Robert||

    As to water's having a memory, that would appear to be how magnetic water rx works. We found that magnetically rxed reprocessing water did allow us to get an increased number of uses from hemodialyzers which was statistically, but not economically, significant. How it works, who knows, but are you going to argue with the data?

  • Zair||

    http://xkcd.com/765/ for a laugh.

    I support people's right to dose themselves with placebos, and for many people placebos do work. I really can't decide whether I think the FDA should mandate a warning label that there's no scientific proof it does anything, but it's probably a better use of their time than a lot of the things they do.

  • Jennifer||

    Odd how homeopathy's proponents never use it to reduce their grocery costs. Take a bouillon cube, cabbage leaf, slice of potato and a soybean, add limitless amounts of tapwater, and you've got enough homeopathic beef stew to feed a family of clueless hippies for over a year, no?

  • ||

    Awesome.

  • Jennifer||

    I just remember, as a kid, reading some old fairy tales -- maybe Russian -- about a poor family that had to keep adding water to their soup because they had nothing else to add. But surely, if homeopathy is correct, the more water you add to the soup, the more filling and nutritious it becomes?

    Ron Bailey: have you ever done a study correlating the rise in Western obesity rates with the growing popularity of bottled water? You totally should.

  • ||

    I had this idea of starting a line of humorous bottled water that's labeled "homeopathic" and comes in all kinds of fantastic flavors.

  • ||

    Maybe not the flavor part, but Penta Water already marketed itself as "restructured water."

    Highlights:

    Broadly Unsubstantiated Claims made by Penta

    Penta Water contains water clusters of fewer molecules than normal water. [6]
    Penta Water has a 30% reduction in cluster size. *
    Penta Water enters cells 14% faster than normal water. *
    Cells cultured in Penta Water survive 266% longer than in normal water. [6]
    Penta is easier to drink than normal water. [6]
    Penta aids in weight loss. *
    DNA mutation is 271% greater in distilled water than in Penta Water.*
    "..healthier skin, hair, and joints; stronger immune system; faster recovery from surgery or physical activity; and reduced hypertension and cholesterol." Bill Holloway, Penta CEO.[8]
    Helps houseplants grow. *
    Penta has helped clear up skin problems. *
    Protein crystals grown in Penta have a different structure.[9]
    It has helped to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy treatment for cancer. *
    Adding Penta to Pap smear test samples increases the accuracy of cervical cancer screenings.[12]

    -

    And now, the final curtain...

    In 2003, Penta became the best selling bottled water in American health food stores.[4]
  • ||

    There's not much on NCBI about Penta Water.

    Just one Russian abstract from 2003.

    What a load of hooey.

  • ||

    Dammit. NCBI sugarfree'd the link.

    Er...
    Comparative assessment of the human cell viability ex vivo in Hanks solutions in distilled and Penta water
    Bogush TA, Laktionov KK, Bogush EA, Polotskiĭ BE
    Antibiot Khimioter. 2003;48(11):3-6

  • Metazoan||

    LOL how many homeopathy customers are going to be growing protein crystals? That's pretty tough, more than a homeopathy-believer could probably handle.

  • Xenocles||

    I have a plan to relabel bottled water as homeopathic beer.

  • ||

    Diabetes literally means "sweet urine." Who wants to go into the lemonade business? A single atom of lemon juice should do the trick...

  • ||

  • ||

    When I was in college I went to the Plaza Grill and ordered a cheese sandwich and put A-1 Sauce on it. I called it a Homeopathic Hogie!

  • Tor||

    You should have been born in August.Your parents would have been well-advised to wait

  • -||

    They don't believe that water can be turned into wine. That's a religious gag. Not that the two disciplines are not related.

  • Jennifer||

    Of course you can't "turn water into wine." But (assuming homeopathic principles are correct) you can "add water to wine, and keep adding more until the watered-down result will get you drunker than chugging pure grain alcohol."

  • ||

    That's actually fairly common at some of the bars in the "Viagra Triangle" area of Chicago, only I think it's just done with cocktails. You're never going to land that married 55-year-old business exec if you don't act like you're drunk!

  • Brett L||

    That's disappointing in so many ways.

  • sarcasmic||

    You can if you add to it grape juice extract and yeast.

  • Two Fingers||

    It's also odd how homeopathy's idea that water retains a substance's imprint or "spirit-like essence" does not include all the shit or piss from the sewage system.

  • ||

    Maybe they do realize it and are just into that sort of thing.

  • rts||

    Or fish spunk.

  • kinnath||

    My college chemistry professor said that he wouldn't drink water because fish fuck in it ;-)

  • Ice Nine||

    You took Chem from W.C. Fields?

  • ||

    I thought that was a W.C. Fields line.

  • ||

    DAMN, Ice.. beat me to it.

  • Zeb||

    Let me guess: he preferred gin.

  • Joe M||

    If you're voluntary ignorant or a believer in nonsense, you must suffer the consequences. So no, the government should not be adding even yet still more warning labels. People need to take responsibility for their health, and that includes researching actually effective medicine.

  • PantsFan||

    It's clear - nothing bad should ever happen to anyone ever. If anything bad can happen, the government must step in to prevent it.

  • Zeb||

    If they would just cut to the chase and make getting sick illegal, we wouldn't have to have this conversation.

  • Colin||

    The mind can be a great healer. If you really, really believe this stuff will help, it just might.

    Too bad it would never work for me, as I don't believe in anything.

  • robc||

    It pisses me off when I realize my water company is diluting sewage, thus making the poo essence stronger in my drinking water.

  • robc||

    Two fingers beat me by 3 minutes.

  • ...||

    I think they should be required to print a warning label in "6X" font (the characters would be 1-millionth of an inch tall). That would obviouslly make the warning extra effective.

  • goober1223||

    Via "Storm" by Tim Minchin:

    Water has memory! And while it’s memory of a long lost drop of onion juice seems Infinite
    It somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it!'

    Full text heir. Fantastic poem.

  • squishua||

    an FDA warning label would not stop the sale of snake oil, but it would inform otherwise clueless consumers that based on scientific evidence their government regards homeopathic remedies as snake oil. If they proceeded to purchase and rely on the homeopathic pills after being warned, that would more clearly indicate their voluntary assumption of risk.


    It already says "homeopathic." They've been warned.

    Oh, and:

    "inform otherwise clueless consumers..."


    Ron, the Nanny.

  • Oosik||

    An oldie but a goodie: Homeopathic ER
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMGIbOGu8q0

  • ||

    Peep Show was so much better.

  • jbl||

    What's next, ban astrologers ? Please. Keep government out of my life.

  • squishua||

    BTE, your reason alum who downs a bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills copies James Randi's performance.

  • ||

    I don't see how this is anything but fraud. The people who are fooled into buying this are being deceived and are victims (and we should not be blaming the victims for being deceived as some commenters have alluded). Those selling these "remedies" should be prosecuted for fraud.

  • goober1223||

    As has been stated upthread, you can't really call this fraud and leave religion without government intervention in their similar supernatural claims.

    I hate them with a passion, just as I do Peter Popoff who was publicly humiliated for claiming supernatural powers, but it's very hard to call it fraud even though it is abhorrent, immoral behavior.

  • ||

    g: I think that the First Amendment addresses the issue of government intervention in religion.

  • goober1223||

    Fair enough. But christ on a cracker, how can you call asking people to send all of the money they can to you so that god will give them the money that they need religion. If that can be defined as religion, then so can homeopathy. They both stem from a few simple, but fundamentally unfounded (and in homeopathy's case, refuted) claims?

    My rage clouds my judgment sometimes. I really can't get away from it in Popoff's case.

  • Fluffy||

    I don't see two cents' worth of difference between the claims of homeopathy and the claims of religion.

    If someone has a bunch of New Age crystals in their house that they think connect to "invisible fingers of power" in the Earth, that's pretty straightforwardly a religious belief.

    How is this "magic water" any different?

    What's really being sold here is the idea that mainstream science has it all wrong, and there's a hidden world of substances with strange powers that work miracles on human beings, that "they" don't want people to know about.

    The Catholics claim to have magic water, too.

  • sevo||

    I remember reading the difference between a cult and a religion.
    It's a cult until it can deliver 1M votes nationwide.
    Instant transformation!

  • ||

    I can't speak for all religions, but as a Lutheran I think there's one HUGE difference: I don't BUY anything from my church. If a church says "give me $1000 and I'll cure your gout using the power of prayer," and it doesn't work, I think your comparison is valid. But otherwise I have to agree with one commenter above who noted that (most) religions address things that are unprovable (morality, life after death) whereas homeopathy is demonstrably false.

  • Robert||

    Now, if you were in the Church of the SubGenius, you couldn't say that about not buying from them.

  • Abdul||

    Catholics claim to have magic bread and wine, the water is just revered.

    Anyway, a substantial difference between religion and homeopathy is that my donations to the Church do not secure any spiritual benefit, nor is there any promise that they will deliver a benefit. Most major denominations operate in a similar way.

    My donations do go to various tangible programs (everything from a literacy class for recent immigrants to re-carpeting the vestibule). Priests and other clerics have been convicted of fraud when they do promise to spend religious donations on religious causes, but divert the funds to personal causes (i.e., hookers).

    Buying a homoepathic product is closer to fruad because it promises a benefit that cannot be delivered.

  • Robert||

    Traditionally the Catholic Church does give spiritual benefit in exchange for donations. The idea is that they have a reserve of grace to be parceled out -- use it or lose it -- and what better way to ration it than monetarily?

  • Abdul||

    Robert, are you writing in from 1521? Even prior to Martin Luther, the sale of indulgences was on shaky theological grounds.

  • ||

    The pills contain four "active" ingredients, e.g., Hyoscyamus niger

    RACIST!!!

  • sevo||

    Ya know, the first thing the government could do is STOP SPENDING OUR DAMN MONEY PROMOTING THIS CRAP:
    http://nccam.nih.gov/health/homeopathy/

  • ||

    s: Amen!

  • ||

    There are challenges in studying homeopathy and controversies regarding the field. This is largely because a number of its key concepts are not consistent with the current understanding of science, particularly chemistry and physics.

    LOL

  • sevo||

    Translated:
    "It's MAGIC!"

  • ||

    "an estimated 3.9 million U.S. adults and approximately 900,000 children used homeopathy in the previous year"

    1.6% of the population CAN'T be wrong!

  • GILMORE||

    Ahh, sweet, sweet disclosures...

    I once did market research on segments of the homeopathic remedies markets. Actually, I don't recall if all segments were specifically homeopathic, but it included that stuff. Let's just call it, "The Bullshit-Remedies Market"

    One interesting thing I picked up was that there were big differences between the broad-line Boiron-type companies that provide a diverse array of individual 'medicines'...and seem quite sincere in trying to create some broad-based credibility for homeopathics...

    ...and the majority of others, who often have 1 cash-cow 'single remedy'-product that has developed niche-appeal via word-of-mouth, and quietly makes huge amounts of money selling itself next to cash-registers in convenience stores, wal-mart, etc.

    I'm thinking more along the lines of Cold-ESE, or Airborne cold-remedies here (neither homeopathic, but perhaps equally questionable in their structure-function health-claims as homeopathic - in any case, they're not pharmaceuticals)

    There's long been a booming business in seasonal flu-season cold-remedies/prevention gimmicks... every few years some b.s. product makes it onto daytime television in between soaps/oprah, whatever, and for maybe a couple of years the stuff becomes all the rage of the soccer-mom set. (i dont mean to sound mean about it, its just i did the research... and that's who drives sales of this stuff)

    Leaving aside the specific theory of homeopathics - i think the DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, w/ a few subsequent amendments) effectively derails the "Center for Inquiry"'s entire line of complaint. Boiron and others may market their products as 'medicines', but many other homeopathic-suppliers simply take the lower road and call the products "supplements" for marketing purposes, and effectively stay within the purview of the DSHEA, which allows some considerable latitude as far as marketing claims.

    They (homeopathics or supplement providers) don't need to be able to actually *do* anything...all they're really required to do is warn consumers of any potentially adverse effects.

    I think its highly unlikely this 'sciency' criticism will get any traction for a variety of reasons.

    1) A LOT of consumers LOVE their bullshit remedies

    2) A lot of bullshit remedy suppliers LOVE selling the stuff to them, and they throw quite a bit of weight around in D.C

    3) retailers also make out like gangbusters on the stuff...with many invested pretty significantly in private-label dietary supplement/remedy lines.

    Who've you got on the other side of the table? A couple of science-y secular-humanist academics? pppt.

    I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that at best (in order to make the CFI shut up and go away), there may be some refinements to the DSHEA such that language in the existing disclaimers, etc. are refined, but that in the end, you're going to see zero real change in how these kinds of products are marketed and sold. Personally I'm not particularly concerned about it. I'm far more worried with how the administration is fucking up the Real medical business, as opposed to 'dangerous' placebos.

  • ||

    squisha: I believe that our board member is a good friend of Randi.

  • sevo||

    Which probably makes Randi a bit uncomfortable.

  • squishua||

    You're being deliberately enigmatic... This "board member" is you, isn't it?

  • ||

    The biggest problem with this is the "slippery slope" argument. If we single out homeopathy for selling a product that doesn't work as advertised, are anti-bacterial soaps next? Daily multi-vitamins? 80% of the stuff GNC sells? It's not just homeopathy and negative ion bracelets that don't work, all sorts of products huge numbers of Americans use have dubious effectiveness.

    Caveat Emptor is a much cheaper and effective way of dealing with this; if you're getting what they say you're getting, it's up to you to determine whether stuff like this works.

  • ||

    Don't know if you're referring to regulation or lawsuits, but I can tell you on the law side of thing that kind of stuff happens every day. There were actually some class actions filed against Johnson & Johnson which argued that their baby shampoo violated consumer protection laws because it wasn't really "no more tears." Fortunately I believe all of those have been dismissed at this point.

  • Zeb||

    Another thing worth considering is that some (though probably not too many) things sold as supplements do actually work and the FDA will take forever to officially approve it as a pharmaceutical. I think it is worth it to have all of the bullshit available in order to allow the actually effective supplements to be marketed without all of the expense and restrictions of being approved as an actual drug.

  • ||

    If, indeed, it could even happen. How many companies could afford to spend 100 million dollars jumping through the FDA's hoops for a product that they can't copyright or charge more than a few dollars for?

  • GILMORE||

    Which is why they generally don't.

  • Nipplemancer||

    This is the best source of info on Homeopathy that I've found on the intarwebz.

  • Zeb||

    Nice. That's right up there with http://hasthelargehadroncollid.....ldyet.com/

  • Nipplemancer||

    Seriously though, if there is no measurable amount of the curative in these solutions, how is it not fraud? If you tell me on the packaging that this product contains X, and it doesn't, you are comitting fraud.

  • Robert||

    It says it's that many X (powers of -10) or C (powers of -100). How much more do you want?

    BTW, what might be considered a dirty little secret of homeopathy is that not all the preps are extremely dilute, nor do they all follow the law of similes. There are 1X preps out there that work like conventional pharmaceuticals but have found a regulatory loophole.

  • Daniel Earwicker||

    All advertising should be completely unrestricted, protected as free speech.

    This would encourage people to distrust it by default, instead of blindly trusting it (i.e. trusting the ability of the state to perfectly regulate it for them).

    I was taught from early childhood to assume that all advertising is nonsense, and it has served me pretty well.

    What possible set of regulations concerning "honesty" in advertising would be impossible to circumvent by creative use of language? There is no such regulatory panacea.

    People have to learn to be skeptical towards those selling something, to be choosy consumers. A regulatory environment discourages this personal responsibility, and so is ultimately harmful.

  • ||

    The problem isn't the lack of a warning label or the lack of a statement saying claims haven't been verified; the problem is the false claims themselves.

    People are being sold products based on claims that are downright misleading. They are effectually being stolen from; the product being delivered isn't the product being offered or purchased.

    It's a simple notion: don't allow a seller to make unfounded claims. The problem with homeopathy is that the sellers claim things that cannot be supported even giving them the benefit of the doubt. No, their products aren't effective. They can't even show that their products contain the active ingredient! There's no grey area there.

    Companies selling homeopathic medicines are actively committing fraud. The solution is stopping the activity, not trying to fight it with a second one.

  • CE||

    You mean, how far will the government go to protect the big pharmaceutical companies against the threat of low cost natural remedies? They're working on it.

  • sevo||

    "You mean, how far will the government go to protect the big pharmaceutical companies against the threat snakeoil?

    Sorry, CE, just had to inject some honesty.

  • ||

    It's the same bullshit that's behind the nonsense where they want to require you to get a doctor's prescription to get fucking Vitamin C.

    Pharma can't copyright Vitamin C or homeopathy or acupuncture and make millions off of it so they don't want people using that instead of their expensive shit.

  • Sparky||

    I hope this link works, it's blocked for me at work. This is the real threat behind homeopathy:

    http://www.newsbiscuit.com/201.....hic-bomb/#

  • ||

    The so-called scientifically proven drugs don't work any better. When your doctor prescribes one of them there's no guarantee it will work because each one of us is different.

    And let's not even get started about the phonebook-sized fliers listing the potential side effects. Did you ever read one of those? And this shit is what you all consider "safe"? Really?

  • sevo||

    Enjoy Every Sandwich|8.31.11 @ 4:17PM|#
    "The so-called scientifically proven drugs don't work any better."

    Wrong aisle. Tin foil hats are on #6.

  • ||

    How is it fraudulent to claim something is a homeopathic remedy when it is a homeopathic remedy? I don't see how a label will fix the underlying problem that homeopathy is utter crap, and I don't see why companies such as Boiron should be forced to tell consumers that their product is bullshit.

    Here's my reasoning: Boiron, as an example, doesn't claim that homeopathic remedies aren't diluted, and they don't hide this, they advertise it! They use the very theory of homeopathy to advertise their medications in various "strengths", with the "strongest" product being the most diluted. As far as I know these strengths are, or at least were, advertised quite prominently on product bottles, and are upfront about how these things are prepared. From Boiron's Canadian website:
    "The first extract in the manufacturing process is called ‘mother tincture’ and it undergoes a series of dilutions in which, paradoxically, their potency increases."
    It's right there in their own marketing materials: homeopathic remedies are diluted, which makes them stronger the more they are diluted. It may be wrong, but I don't think it's fraudulent: it's consistent with homeopathic doctrine.

    Homeopathic remedy sellers may be selling snake oil, but they are selling snake oil while telling customers that they are selling snake oil. If customers want to believe in mystical plant spirits that inhabit sugar pills and make them better, well, why *shouldn't* a company step up and sell them what they want?

  • ||

    If homeopathic remedies "cure" symptoms of an ailment by giving the patient stuff that causes similar symptoms, shouldn't the homeopathic sleeping pills be made with stuff that keeps you *awake* rather than with stuff that puts you to sleep/kills you?

    How do they keep out/remove contaminants if anything the water has come in contact with leaves an "imprint" of the substance? Even succussion is of limited use since the water you use in preparing the remedy may have been violently agitated in the past.

    How do you measure the effectiveness of this imprinting? How can you tell what dose to give a person, a dose that will vary with a person's mass and the dillution ratio of the homeopathic remedy?

  • Beef Chow Fun||

    Chinese food should be illegal. I'm always hungry an hour after eating it. Very deceptive.

  • Wesley||

    I have no problem with quacks being able to sell their quackery. But I am surprised at the resistance to the government prohibiting them from outright lying to consumers. Why should all medicines be left to caveat emptor?

    I will agree that the FDA over regulates in some areas. But it is unreasonable to expect everyone to know everything there is to know about a given medication prior to discussion with a physician or "practitioner." That's why it's illegal for a doctor (a real doctor) to lie or mislead about medication. Patient fraud is one of the areas that I have no problem with FDA involvement.

    Homeopathic "remedies" should be treated like all other drugs. They have to pass a basic level of medical scrutiny, and when it doesn't, homeopaths would not be allowed to label the drug as being effective for something that was proven otherwise. Just like any other business cannot lie to consumers.

    As an example of things that justifiably are unregulated by the FDA, you have vitamin supplements. They claim to do nothing more than add the vitamins that it contains to your diet. They don't claim that it will cure your GID or allow you to heal from all wounds like Wolverine or some other claim similarly bogus to hemeopathy.

  • ranting ranter||

    You are mixing together a pile of different issues.

    Fraud is a form of theft. This can be handled as a criminal matter. No need for economic regulations. If you agree to exchange your money for a product promising certain properties, but I give you a product that lacks those properties, I have at best violated a contract and owe you your money back, or at worst robbed you. Meanwhile if you give counterfeit money to a vendor or lie to an insurance company with a fraudulent claim what happens? Those get your ass locked up. Meanwhile you want some piddly agency with "regulations" to merely slap vendors on the wrist with little fines if they pull that kind of shit against the customer. You really think the regulatory jungle we have was created to protect consumers?

    If a doctor gives you medication you don't need he is essentially poisoning you. Another crime.

  • RHN||

    You know what is completely neglected in this article? How the FDA is guilty of committing massive fraud by labeling harmful substances 'FDA Approved', thereby misleading idiot consumers who have been conditioned to blind faith in the state.

    I read Randi's idiot petition some time ago and was immediately disgusted by his crocodile tears over 'public safety'. Randi's intent is transparent: lobbying the State into slamming their mighty gavel down upon his dreaded 'woo'.

    And Bailey's "concern" over the $870MM market for harmless placebos is telling. I suppose capitalism and profit are good, except when it strengthens the woo. But what's the measure of Bailey and his magician's productive contributions to society? Where is the ~$B in new wealth generated by their nonprofits or debunking? As someone who esteems productivity and profit, I hope there is at least 5000 snake-oil salesmen/witch doctors/crystal worshipers/et al, for every magician and Koch-paid libertarian.

    But most depressing is how Bailey pimps Randi's statist 'War on Woo' without mentioning the very inconvenient fact that the federal monopoly over food and drug administration is responsible for more needless deaths than all the homeopathic pushers in history. Call me a libertarian, but I don't trust Bailey's Enlightened bureaucrats to DELIVER THE MAIL, much less protect consumers.

    Someone should petition the government to slap a "May Contain Authoritarian Views" label on Reason Magazine.

  • freeee||

    Did I miss something, or is there a canon of correct science somewhere out there? Can all scientists come to some uniform conclusion by using the magical scientific method? And if not, how is it determined which scientists are correct? Who is going to declare which medicines work scientifically and which do not? I suppose it would be those scientists on the pay-roll of the government, those which walk continually through a revolving door between the legislators, regulators, and large corporations. Oh boy, do I love freedom!

  • ||

    You missed something.

  • ||

    "What to do about homeopathy?"

    Why do you feel compelled to do anything about it?

    How on Earth do you presume to have, acknowledge, or accede to such a phantom "right".

    If such a right existed, by definition it would supersede individual rights!

    And as such, this "right" could not be implemented without force of law, ultimately of physical violence and imprisonment. Of course there can be no such "right" - this proposition is merely a rationalization for more dictatorship.

    You do not have the right to tell anyone what to produce or what to purchase. But you can certainly force others to behave as you decide.

    Disgusting!

    Let people find their own successes (and failures) on their own. Is that not what liberty allows?

  • NL_||

    Nah, nothing government should do about it. We could use the same argument to ban religion, since some people use religion and prayer as a substitute for earthly action.

    I prefer leaving stuff like this to Penn & Teller to debunk.

  • Tybo||

    The error is clearly too much in homeopathy's favor at this point, and not because morons are free to part with their money for magical bottles of water. Rather, the worst problem is that real drugs can sometimes slip the 'homeopathy' sticker on their product to avoid the hassle of safety and efficacy trials.

    Remember Zicam? It was marketed as a 'homeopathic' remedy, when it was indeed not at all - it contained a fair amount of zinc. This zinc was responsible for nasal damage, and ultimately some cases of anosmia.

  • A Mindful Webworker||

    Why oh why would I stick my healthy neck out here? I guess it's because I'm too old to worry about it. And to call for LIBERTY! (Also the vain hope that maybe in this days-old comment list, few will notice and backflack will be minimal?)

    I want to express my appreciation for those who, while believing homeopathy to be worthless, would still permit me and my family to continue purchasing homeopathic remedies and using them.

    Our family has been using homeopathy for over twenty years, and we have a wealth of anecdotal support for it. There are two hundred years of anecdotal support.

    Yes, spare me the obvious rebuttals. We're well aware that anecdote is not proof, and that the scientific validation is next to non-existent, and that there is not even a good valid scientific theoretical explanation. Please remember that lack of sound theory and lack of proof do not disprove the possibility. The long road of science is paved with discredited theories, but also littered with the bodies of those who staked their reputations on disputing what was later accepted. Remember those silly plate tectonics people! As for serious study, look at the CERN experiments on cloud formation, long opposed by the Anthropogenic Climate Change zealots. When the money lies in other areas, the research goes elsewhere.

    Most "disproofs," such as that described in the article, are misapplication of theory (a specialty of that infamous slight-of-hand artist). If the idea is that homeopathy somehow instigates the body's natural healing responses, then finding that it does not kill bacteria in a petri dish eliminates the element of the body from the equation. (I simplify for brevity's sake.) If you don't need a homeopathic remedy, the theory goes, it is ineffective, so downing a whole bottle of sleeping aid (which idea and formulation are not classical homeopathy anyway) when you don't need it is, surprise, ineffective. Again, I simplify, to make the point that if you test something outside of its own theoretical boundaries and "disprove" it, you've only proven your own unwillingness to approach the matter with a modicum of true scientific open-mindedness, essentially looking for the coin over there where the light's better instead of where it was dropped, even doing so on purpose.

    I'm thankful for many liberties beyond the basics like speech and worship. I've married without the State, home-schooled our children, and voted libertarian (when we had the chance), all ideas discouraged, frowned upon, or looked at aghast by "normal" people. We have always read of, and well understood the questions regarding homeopathy, and have seen the abundant errors of those both for and against it. We know we are taking a calculated gamble with our health. We really have found many apparent effects we think far exceed placebic possibility, on ourselves, others to whom we have recommended remedies, and even with animals. We know all these instances of apparent success are questionable, and we've had plenty of ineffective instances. One of the severe problems with testing "natural" remedies is that it seems, as one person related to us, "the remedy didn't do anything; the problem just went away naturally." Marshalling the defense of an individual body by custom-tailoring a remedy based on numerous indicators means that typical double-blind scientific studies are practically impossible.

    Some vitamins and herbs are quite effective in specific instances, but those fields of health are filled with fraud, hokum, and dangerous ignorance. Far more so, homeopathy is a complicated, difficult discipline, where finding the right remedy and the right dosage is no easy thing, and there is lots of misinformation, misunderstanding, and pure balderdash even by homeopathic standards. I've seen herbal remedies marketed as "homeopathic." There are clear "classical" definitions of homeopathy, and then there's the public and pedestrian ideas. That not every reputed cure works as "advertised," or always works in all cases on all people, does not discount all instances with all remedies. So, the sledgehammer and standard-pharm manner of testing homeopathy has even less credibility than does homeopathy itself, to my understanding. I do not seek hereby to persuade, merely to suggest zealots who dispute homeopathy may want to examine whether they truly reason, or need to question the tenets of their blind faith. Just sayin'.

    In any case, if I wish to keep trying it to find out for myself, I'm grateful if even those who are so sure of themselves about its ineffectiveness will keep their ignorant noses out of my business. I for one am not a blind dupe, new-agey zealot, am not ill-informed. I'll grant the possibility that I may be self-deluding, but I'm certainly not being defrauded. It's just a part of our health "experimentation." It's not like I'm going to avoid antibiotics if they're called for! As with, say, chiropracty (way to open a whole 'nother can of worms, eh?), there can be some beneficial methods and a whole lotta dangerous bone-twisters. (I really liked it that Penn & Teller BS [s01ep2] had a chiropractor putting down most chiropracty.) Same goes for much of the fraud and deception in your allegedly reliable scientifically-proven Big Pharma-copia, if you look closely. Let me be free to choose to play with my own body with my cheap little sugar pills, if I want to. You go ahead and down your expensive venom with fatal side-effects.

    To reiterate my primary point, give me liberty and I'll worry about my own death. Thanks.

  • ||

    A few comments:

    1. Only 11% of all treatment - including conventional treatment - carries according to BMJ evidence of efficiency, i.e. 89% of all treatments does not - does that qualify for snake oil?

    2. Having a slogan "there is nothing in it" is incorrect as many homepathic remedies - especially those sold OTC are lower X potencies. Go and check - you will se many 3X and even for some complex remedies sold 1X.

  • snake at home||

    snake oil its poison or medicine?

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement