I was in a big hurry and needed to pick up a strong cold medication for sinus congestion before going to a Skeptic Society meeting. Not knowing any better, I stopped a health food chain store in Pasadena—and was stunned by what I saw. Everything was advertised as “organic” (even though studies show no clear evidence that organic is significantly healthier, or that all foods labeled “organic” are indeed grown or raised that way). Everything was WAY more expensive than conventional grocery store prices. The place was crawling with yuppie couples in Birkenstocks and expensive designer clothes from Land’s End and L.L. Bean. It was a two-story chaos, with lots of dead ends and confusing and poorly laid-out aisles. It was almost like a casino, which is designed to slow you down and make you see as much of the floor space as possible. Consequently, it took me quite a while to find the cold products. By this time, I was running late. Because the clerk recommended it, I grabbed a box off the shelf called “Umcka cold care”. When I reached the checkout, I discovered it cost $17 for just 20 tablets!
When I got back to the car, I looked closer. In tiny letters, the box said “Homeopathic”! I guess I should have expected that in a heath food store, there would be homeopathic remedies, but I didn’t realize that they would ONLY have quack medicines. Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the problem with homeopathy. Most homeopathic medicines are diluted down so much that they contain few or no molecules of the active ingredient, and so they are literally just drinking water. In the case of these pills I bought, there is a long list of inactive ingredients, and just a tiny amount of the Pelargonium sidoides plant, a South African herb that MIGHT have some effect on reducing cold symptoms—although the medical studies are inconclusive, and most colds go away as our immune systems take care of the viral infection.
The claims of homeopathy have been tested over and over again, and none has passed muster. In 2005, the premier British medical journal The Lancet published an analysis of 220 studies about homeopathy, half of them conventional studies of medicines, and half of them of controlled homeopathic experiments. They found no evidence that homeopathy had any real value except as a placebo. In 2006, the European Journal of Cancer surveyed 6 studies, and found homeopathy had no effect (Milazzo et al., 2006). Even studies by homeopaths themselves often show that their products have no significant effect, despite their biases to prove otherwise.
In January 2010, a group of British skeptics decided to stage an event to show the uselessness of homeopathic remedies. They planned a “homeopathic overdose” day on Jan. 30, where they would take hundreds of times the recommended dose of homeopathic remedies to “commit suicide”. If homeopathic remedies were real drugs, such overdoses would indeed have made these people sick, or killed them. Of course, nothing adverse happened to them—except that some of them had to go to the bathroom more often from consuming so much water. Their protest was an effort to expose the fraudulent nature of homeopathic remedies sold in British drugstores to the tune of £12 million worth of these worthless “remedies” between 2005 and 2008. Since the original stunt, groups in America and Australia have staged similar events to publicize the worthlessness of homeopathy.
In the United States, there is no national medical system fully in place yet, but homeopathy is not covered by most private medical insurance providers. About $3.1 billion were spent on homeopathic medicines in 2007, and about 2% of the U.S. population seeks homeopathic treatment each year. Homeopathic remedies are still regulated as drugs for purity by the FDA, although the FDA does not endorse their medicinal qualities. However, the FDA considers most of homeopathic drugs harmless, because they are so diluted that they have no real active ingredients left. (The FDA is not empowered to tell consumers whether the drugs are worthless or a waste of money, just whether they are safe or not).
I should not have been surprised that an organic food store would have expensive but worthless homeopathic products on their shelves. Unfortunately, there are many mainstream grocery stores and drugstores that carry both homeopathic “medicines” next to legitimate medicines—and the consumer needs to look the packaging over carefully to make sure that it is really an FDA-approved drug based on scientific research, and not the product of some homeopathic con game. Caveat emptor!
As a coda to the story, I went to a conventional drug store immediately after I realized the health food store “medicine” was homeopathic—and bought 20 tablets of a real antihistamine-decongestant-pain reliever (for just $6), and took some of those. I felt fine the rest of the afternoon. And I saved the receipt from the health food chain, so I got my $17 back.
- Milazzo S, Russell N, Ernst E. “Efficacy of homeopathic therapy in cancer treatment.” Eur J Cancer. 2006 Feb. 42(3):282–9.