Imagine the following situation: You’re home from work sick. You have a severe cold or some other virus that has you in a miserable state of congestion, fatigue, headache and low grade fever. Unable to get restful sleep and suffering from these symptoms you venture out to your local corner drug store seeking an over the counter remedy to provide some temporary relief to your symptoms so you can get some rest.
It’s certainly reasonable to expect that the cold and cough isle in a pharmacy would have products that would provide some basic symptomatic treatment for minor ailments like colds, allergies or sore throat. A number of OTC products exist that contain safe and effective ingredients such as antihistamines, decongestants and general purpose pain relievers.
After looking over the medications available, you select a product that appears to be a good match for what you’re looking for. The label offers some straight forward indications for use, “Non-drowsy formula: for relief of stuffy or runny nose, sinus congestion and headache.” So you buy it, never even realizing that it does not have a single active ingredient in it and will do absolutely nothing to help your condition. Most of the other products on the same shelf are totally legitimate and do contain some kind of therapeutic ingredient.
Is this a realistic scenario? Could a person seeking a legitimate over the counter medication end up spending money on a completely sham product containing absolutely nothing? Many pharmacies in the US and elsewhere stock homeopathic products right alongside the real thing, often in similarly styled packaging with only a small, easily overlooked mention of the fact that they are homeopathic.
Consider this image. Most of the products shown here are legitimate over-the-counter medications. They contain ingredients that are actually proven to be safe and have value in providing some level of temporary symptomatic relief. One or more, however, are homeopathic and thus contain no active ingredient and do not provide any direct therapeutic benefit.
The image above is made intentionally small to illustrate that glancing over these products does not provide much insight into which are homeopathic and which are real. If you read this blog frequently or a self-described skeptic then chances are you are well aware of what homeopathy is and know to keep an eye out for that word on labels because it means the product is worthless, but does the general public even know this?
While this is admittedly an entirely unscientific method of judging public perception and knowledge, in my experience most people seem to think homeopathic means “traditional,” “herbal,” “natural,” “nutrition-based,” or even “good for the body.” With such nebulous and inaccurate perception of the very meaning of the word and considering that few packages will come out and say what homeopathy actually means, can anyone be blamed for believing one of these products is legitimate?
And why shouldn’t the public feel confident in picking a product off of the store shelves. In the US and most other countries, any medication sold with indications of treating a certain condition must actually have medical evidence that it does so. If a pain reliever states that it is effective to reduce headaches, it must, at the very least, have some scientific backing to that statement – even if it’s not 100% effective for all headaches in all individuals, it can’t be completely bunk, there has to be something to it. Furthermore all OTC and prescription drugs must meet standards for safety and quality of manufacture.
Homeopathic preparations are exempt from this. It would seem that they can publish bold faced lies without any problem. Simply by virtue of not being considered real medication they are allowed to pretend to be real medication and make bogus claims that no other product can. When real drug companies are found to have crossed the line with marketing of their products they may be subject to millions of dollars in fines, but for homeopathic providers, these lines don’t even seem to exist.
This is not simply a medical issue, it’s an issue of out and out fraud. It’s generally established that no product, medical or otherwise can be sold under false pretext. Doing so is theft by deception, taking the money of the buyer by tricking them into thinking they receive a valuable product in return. If a car dealer tells you that a vehicle’s gas mileage is 68 miles per gallon by EPA test standards and it’s actually 14, that lie constitutes fraud and they can be prosecuted. It’s also fraud if the dealer turns back the vehicle’s odometer to make it seem like it has not driven as far as it actually has. If a vacuum-cleaner advertisement states that it is twice as powerful as competitors, but it’s actually half as powerful, that’s also fraud.
People go to prison for this kind of thing, companies have been shut down, huge fines have been imposed and courts have ordered that those scammed receive reparation. Yet it seems that law that protects consumers from being sold a car with a bogus mileage reading or a vacuum cleaner of less power than it is advertised as having doesn’t care much about products labeled as homeopathic.
This entry was posted on Thursday, November 25th, 2010 at 7:10 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Obfuscation, Quackery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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