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Deluding Australia

by Phil Plait, Mar 18 2009

When I visited Australia in 2003, I had an incredible time. Australians are my kinda folks: loud, blunt, funny, and they have those silly accents.

One aspect that shocked me, though, was how popular homeopathy is there. We went into a pharmacy so I could get decongestants (this entire planet irritates my sinuses), and the homeopathic garbage was everywhere. Richard Saunders, my host (and arguably Oz’s most famous skeptic), told me that the homeopaths spend a lot of money to get their stuff into pharmacies there, including paying for attractive displays to make their diluted water more eye-catching. There was an entire wall devoted to homeopathic placebos in one place we went.

Richard and the Australian Skeptics have taken it on themselves to fight this sort of flim-flam. They created a one-page PDF ad taking the pharmacies to task for it. Richard created a JPG version which I uploaded to my Flickr page as well:

Feel free to use this to promote on your own site, blog, whatever. Print the PDF version and send it to local papers, or to local pharmacies. It’s written for Australia, but it applies universally. Truth always does.

21 Responses to “Deluding Australia”

  1. smijer says:

    I’m afraid it isn’t great here in the states either. I don’t know how many times I’ve been at a pharmacy and picked up a remedy and nearly bought it before I saw the “homeopathic” small-print. They stock it right there with the medicine now.

  2. I’ve been bothered a little by the continued presence of “Airborne” and even a store brand knock off of it in my local pharmacy. Apparently that’s nothing compared to Australia. You sure can’t get ear candles or iridology readings at my CVS or Walgreen’s.

    I could actually see this as a marketing ploy for one chain store over another. “Walgreen’s; you can trust what we sell” along with education materials about why they only stock remedies that have studies proving they work.

    Considering the corporate structure of U.S. stores, a letter to the pharmacists of your local drug store wouldn’t have much of an effect on products stocked there. A letter campaign to the corporate offices would be required to get CVS to stop making CVS brand “AirShield Effervescent Tablets”.

  3. Our pharmacies are virtual petri dishes for ridiculous bile, not just homeopathy. Scary thing is, they have gone from occupying select areas to mingling with legitimate treatments almost overnight. The pharmacy in my town has it’s own naturopath, weight loss and detox booth where you can book a consultation with a staff member to discuss “natural” alternatives.

  4. Paul Caggegi says:

    I used to work in a pharmacy. There was an obnoxious stage-mum who wanted an instant cure for her daughter’s cold-sore. She was so phenomenally annoying, claiming how zovirax never worked fast enough, I recommended a homeopathic remedy for her just to be a bit evil.

    She totally bought it, tho. Who says Homeopathy doesn’t have a use? :D

  5. Pharmacies and many health care providers in NC openly support this homeopathic crap. Zicam in particular seems popular, recommended to me by both an MD and an RN, neither of whom knew it was homeopathic till I informed them with my somewhat nasty and sarcastic refusal.

  6. Max says:

    For the thousandth time, Zicam is not homeopathic. The spray has been reported to cause permanent anosmia (loss of the sense of smell).
    The box says “homeopathic” for marketing, since there’s no legal definition of homeopathic. Don’t know if that’s different in Australia.
    As far as I can tell, Zicam’s claims don’t carry the FDA disclaimer.

  7. Max says:

    If Phil Plait has allergic rhinitis, it may be treatable with some legitimate homeopathy: allergy shots. It’s homeopathic in the sense that it cures like with like.

  8. Tonia says:

    But Max, even though I’m guessing you are joking, allergy shots aren’t homeopathic – ie they aren’t diluted to the point of just being water. There has to be appreciable amounts of the allergen in there to get the desensitisation effect.

  9. Mat in Sydney says:

    Hi Phil, I live in Sydney and decided to pop into a chemist today and actually look for the homeopathic items, and found them, unfortunately. I’d never actually looked for them before and didn’t realise they were so easily available (I always thought part of homeopathy was that the “doctor” listened to your entire health history before preparing a potion).
    I picked up a brochure from the company that seemed to be the main supplier, and of course it refers to the “fact” of like curing like. It also mentions dilution, but doesn’t fess up on how diluted the potions are. No surpises I guess, other than the fact it was for sale in a chemist.

  10. Max says:

    How do homeopathic remedies stand out from the competition?
    “Nobody’s homeopathic remedies are more effective than ours.”
    “New extra strength formula has 0 ppm of active ingredient.”
    “The brand most trusted by homeopaths.”

  11. TomP says:

    As an Australian, unfortunately, I can confirm what Phil is saying is correct.

    Pharmacies over here are fast becoming “Natural Medicine” (what is that anyway? the opposite to supernatural medicine?) shops with a sideline of prescription medicine distribution.

    The scary thing is that Pharmacists are held in quite high regard by the general public over here. A lot of people will go to their local pharmacist for health advice before they think about seing a doctor.

    In general, Pharmacists in Australia are very well trained and (for the most part) give good medically sound advice.

    The problem is that most pharmacies in Austrlia are run by large corporations (very few are owned by the pharmacist themselves – you can really tell the difference when you find one that is), and unfortunately, it becomes somewhat inevitable that large corporations are going to put profits a long way in front of what actually improves the health of their customers. And like it or not, selling snake oil is, and always has been a profitable business.

    The problem with pharmacies stocking ANY kind of non-scientifically proven health product is that the reputation of the pharmacist lends massive amounts of undue credence to these products.

    I guess the only way to fix it is better regulation, but I can’t see that happening any time soon.

  12. tmac57 says:

    I’ve recently been noticing ads for Oscillococcinum , and have seen it at several pharmacies. Being the curious sort I went to Quackwatch, Stephen Barrett’s great site, to see what he had to say, which was:
    “Oscillococcinum, a 200C product “for the relief of colds and flu-like symptoms,” involves “dilutions” that are even more far-fetched. Its “active ingredient” is prepared by incubating small amounts of a freshly killed duck’s liver and heart for 40 days. The resultant solution is then filtered, freeze-dried, rehydrated, repeatedly diluted, and impregnated into sugar granules. If a single molecule of the duck’s heart or liver were to survive the dilution, its concentration would be 1 in 100200. This huge number, which has 400 zeroes, is vastly greater than the estimated number of molecules in the universe (about one googol, which is a 1 followed by 100 zeroes). In its February 17, 1997, issue, U.S. News & World Report noted that only one duck per year is needed to manufacture the product, which had total sales of $20 million in 1996. The magazine dubbed that unlucky bird “the $20-million duck.””
    Mmmmmmm, that’s good duck!!!
    One might say that nothing is better for the Flu than Oscillococcinum, because at least ‘nothing’ doesn’t cost anything!

  13. On Wednesday I misread the title of this entry as Denuding Australia, thought immediately of Elle MacPherson, fell off my desk chair, and am only now regaining consciousness.

  14. Oogly says:

    I was pleased to read this article as I work at a pharmacy in Australia and am equally appalled at the number of homeopathic products that are stocked/sold. I find it deeply worrying when parents come in to buy untested, unproven remedies for their child’s ailments like “Infant Colic Oral Sprays” and “Sleep Ezy lollypops” which all seem to follow the same basic recipe of a bunch of herbs from some old coots garden. I would really like to stop selling this garbage as though it works, but the industry in Australia makes so much money from the stuff that it seems unlikely to cease production anytime soon.

  15. Feralboy says:

    I have developed a new dietary science I shall call Alternative Nutrition. I am still working on the details, but for breakfast this morning I suspended three atoms of Cheerios in a bowl of water, and then dumped the whole thing over my head. While shouting, “Lalala look what I’m doing, look what I’m doing.” And I feel really good now.

  16. Bevans says:

    Wow, they don’t sell cigarettes in pharamcies in Australia?

    I used to work at Walgreens, and I was reading through their monthly employee magazine on a break one time, and in a Q&A section, someone had asked “Why does Walgreens sell cigarettes if they’re so dedicated to health?” I was pretty surprised that they even answered it. Their response was basically “if we don’t sell them here, then the smokers will just go somewhere else to get them”. Which sadly makes a lot of sense. Fortunately, they also had a whole 4-foot shelf section dedicated to various stop-smoking aids right next to the cigarettes, which is something I’ve never seen at a gas station.

    Of course, they still sell homeopathy and supplements and stuff. Sigh.

  17. Nihilodei says:

    I think 3 atoms in a cheerio bowl would be considered a very strong stock by a homeopath

  18. Reed says:

    Having just returned from my honeymoon in Australia, I’d just like to give a shout out (and Thanks!) to the local Skeptics in Sydney. They are both diligent in their work, as well as very welcoming to even the most jetlagged, honeymooning, American tourists who decided to crash their last Skeptics in the Pub gathering. And congrats on their “Popemobile” efforts in the Mardi Gras parade – what a party!

    And while I didn’t see any homeopathy (but admittedly, didn’t go into any pharmacies), I was mildly surprised to see so much reflexology in Australia. Perhaps the nearby Asian influence? We had the objective of getting massages at a spa during our long trip, with the ground rule that we wouldn’t go anywhere that also advertised reflexology as one of their offerings – a rule I hope everyone else here follows! Unfortunately, it was a difficult mission. In the resort town of Port Douglas, we finally settled for the in-house hotel spa and paid a little more, because every other place in town heavily pushed reflexology services and a few other weird detox schemes. If the Sheraton hotel chain had dared to cross that line into selling fraudulent services, they would have heard about it from me – as it was, the Sheraton got my tourist dollars instead of the local “health-scare providers” (my new term for these types of flim flams).

    But overall – thanks Australia for an awesome trip!

  19. Lee Harrison says:

    I once challenged my local pharmacist (I live in South Australia) on the wall of homeopathic and ‘supplementary’ crap available for sale in his store. After I asked why he sold that crap when he must be aware that he is legitimising something that he knows to be nonsense, his totally honest reply completely disarmed me: “If I don’t sell that shit, I go out of business in a month – but at least I don’t recommend it.”

    I didn’t know who to feel more sorry for – him or the generally stupid general public.

  20. bill babishoff says:

    How do you “dilute water”. I’m sorry but I just don’t get that one.
    If big pharma can sell products that don’t work and may harm us, why can’t others? I became ill in 1991 by taking a contaminated sleep remedy called l.tryptophan. It was manufactured by a petro chemical company and marketed as a “natural health remedy”. FIVE of the medications that were prescribed to me back in the early ninety’s to combat my symptoms from this disease were taken off the market because they killed people. If the medicine big pharma sells us doesn’t work we need an alternative. I don’t care if it is natural, homeopathic or made by psychic healers, PLEASE make it safe and free of contaminants.

  21. Joie says:

    The PDF link seems to be broken. As an Audiologist in Australia I want quite a few of these on hand. My patients invariably ask for my opinion on ear candling.