The random thoughts of a sceptical activist

The respectable face of homeopathy?

The dichotomy must tear some homeopaths apart. They eschew conventional medicine — particularly the link to the ruthless and profit-mongering Big Pharma with all their toxic concoctions — yet they crave the respectability, fame and fortune of mainstream medicine. And in their quest, they seem to have no scruples and even mimic their enemies.

But then there’s the problem of homeopathy not being amenable to randomised controlled trials (apparently), yet they keep citing ‘trials’ published in their own comics. That might fool the layman into thinking there is a good evidence base for the efficacy of their sugar potions, but it fools no one who has even a jot of knowledge of science.

However, the are many members of the public who are not so aware of these tactics and not sufficiently versed in the methods of science. These are the ones available to be conned by the snake oil salesmen. To try to prevent them being taken advantage of, we do have some laws and regulations. These sometimes work, but not always. The Advertising Standards Authority are particularly good at weeding out the nonsense from adverts for homeopathy. They, however, have few teeth.

Trading Standards are the guardians of Consumer Protection law, but they are fragmented and seem to be too busy chasing counterfeiters to bother with trivial things like health.

We also have the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency:

…the government agency which is responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices work, and are acceptably safe.

Work?! Since they have been given the responsibility to implement the EU Directive covering homeopathic potions, they have already failed! Andy at The Quackometer and Martin at Layscience have both blogged about the bizarre decisions of the MHRA about homeopathy:

The MHRA and the Labeling of Homeopathic Products

New Evidence Reveals the MHRA’s Farcical Approach to Homeopathy

But what is the public perception of homeopathic potions?

The scientist on the high street

Let’s see how Boots sells the stuff.

In a Boots store, the ‘Alternative Medicines‘ are fitted snugly between the Fybogel and the Pharmacy counter; between the cold remedies and the Canestan. Doesn’t this mislead the customer into thinking they are proper medicines?

Then there’s the name:

  • Alternative: this gives the impression it’s something that’s just a bit different from the kind of stuff prescribed by your GP and collected at the nearby counter.
  • Medicines: well, that gives the distinct impression that you’re getting something that’ll help your medical condition. Just like the proper stuff.

Chambers dictionary says:

medicine noun 1 a any substance used to treat or prevent disease or illness, especially one taken internally; b as adj • medicine bottle • medicine cabinet. 2 the science or practice of treating or preventing illness, especially using prepared substances rather than surgery. 3 medical practice or the profession of a physician. 4 in primitive societies: something regarded as magical or curative.

Do homeopathic potions treat or prevent disease or illness? Well, an emphatic NO.

But most people, I believe, would expect a medicine to be able to have some kind of positive and noticeable effect on their medical condition. That rules out homeopathy as a medicine. To describe homeopathic potions as medicines is therefore downright misleading.

In fact, the ASA:

…understands that no scientific rationale exists for assuming that remedies lacking in pharmacologically active molecules can produce clinical effects and is unaware of robust evidence that proves it does.

Well put. So why are Boots still selling these sugar pills? That is probably obvious.

Choice, choice, choice

The array of homeopathic potions on sale in Boots is frequently impressive, all laid out in neat rows on racks with military precision.

But they are only a tiny fraction of what is available: Nelsons have around 1,000 homeopathic potions available on their website. Then they have their ‘Made to Order’ range of 759 substances available in a range of ‘potencies’ from a measly 6C (10¹²) to a mindbogglingly potent MM — it is left as an exercise for the reader to work out just how many Universes of water you need to find just one molecule of the original substance being diluted.

Boots supply some Nelsons branded products as well as Boots branded products made by Nelsons.

Let’s take one Boots product, arsen. alb. 30c.

Labelling

We’re told it is:

A Homeopathic Medicinal Product

Yep, it’s a product. Yep, it’s homeopathic. Nope, it’s not medicinal.

Who on earth allowed them to make such a misleading claim? The MHRA labelling rules for homeopathic potions are given in Note on labelling requirements for homoeopathic products. They have a lot to answer for.

What’s in a name?

Even the name is determined to build up the overall impression these are real medicines: arsen. alb. A few abbreviations and some words of Latin never fails to make something sound more authoritative that it really is. It’s full name is Arsenicum album and is simply an oxide of arsenic, Arsenic Trioxide, As2O3. It is poisonous, but does have some proper medical uses — in non-homeopathic dilutions, of course. However, relying on the magical water to remember, homeopaths believe it is a very useful potion:

A profoundly acting remedy on every organ and tissue. Its clear-cut characteristic symptoms and correspondence to many severe types of disease make its homeopathic employment constant and certain. Its general symptoms often alone lead to its successful application.

Arsenicum Album. should be thought of in ailments from alcoholism, Ptomaine poisoning, stings, dissecting wounds, chewing tobacco; ill effects from decayed food or animal matter; odor of discharges is PUTRID; in complaints that return annually. Anaemia and chlorosis. Degenerative changes. Gradual loss of weight from impaired nutrition. Reduces the refractive index of blood serum (also China and Ferr. Phos.). Maintains the system under the stress of malignancy regardless of location. Malarial cachexia. Septic infections and low vitality.

Just in case you think these are the ramblings of some rogue homeopath, the same deluded nonsense can be found elsewhere. (OK, that last link was to Vithoulkas’ website, but you get the idea.)

Homeopaths would like to claim that there is evidence for homeopathic ars. alb. and frequently cite a 2007 trial involving humans wheat seedlings. However, this was fisked by Professor David Colquhoun in his blog post: Homeopaths show Arsenic 45x is indistinguishable from water.

However, Boots are not so stupid as to make such dangerous and unsubstantiated claims.

Potent stuff?

The potency of the ‘medicine’ is 30c. It says so boldly in red. 30c sounds pretty harmless, doesn’t it? However, what it really means is that it is a dilution of 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 001. There would hardly be enough room on the label for all that! However, is that the reason they use that handy way of abbreviating it? No. It’s misleading.

What they should be saying to properly inform the public is: “there is no chance of even a molecule of the supposed main ingredient in any pill”. If Boots or any homeopaths are proud that their potions have been diluted out of existence, why can’t they clearly state that?

84 sucrose/lactose pillules

Sucrose and lactose? Just sugar, nothing else (although the purity might be interesting to know). What’s this pillules thing? They are just pills and using this sciency sounding word is simply — yet again — misleading.

It then goes on to tell you how to open their precious medicine.

Unscrew cap and without touching the pillules tip them into the mouth.

Do they really think some of the magic will be rubbed off if you touch them? This is all just part of the façade of making the sugar pills sound sciency, medical and respectable. It is misleading.

Dosage: Adults and children 2 pillules every two hours for teh first six dosws, thereafter take dose four times a day for up to five days or until symptoms improve. If symptoms worsen or persist consult a doctor. Suck or chew pillules and take in between meals.

The dose is utterly irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if you take one or all 84 in one swallow — it will have no effect on any medical condition.

Well, actually, that’s not true. Where the science leads and all that… I have to announce that I have discovered that there is one medical condition where this homeopathic potion could save lives: hypoglycaemia. The pills are about 3.4 mm in diameter (making them look more potent), giving about 0.14 g of sucrose/lactose in each. A bottle of 84 is just under a third on an ounce. About the same sugar as you get in a ‘Fun Size’ pack of nine Malteesers. Pure glucose would be better, but if you’ve nothing better at hand, it’ll do.

What is even more bizarre it that some homeopaths claim that it matters not how many pills you take at one go, it is still just one dose! Apparently, it’s the frequency of taking the dose that counts. Invent some complicated rules and you’ll further enhance the mystery (and the placebo effect), but all you’re doing is misleading the public.

WARNING! WARNING!

Handle carefully, homeopathic medicine in an inner glass vial.

Just remember, it’s the glass that is dangerous, not the sugar!

KEEP OUT OF THE REACH AND SIGHT OF CHILDREN.

This isn’t because this product is dangerous, but simply that the MHRA insist these words are put on all products they regulate. Good sound advice for proper medicines. Good sound advice for homeopathic products — the sugar pills will rot children’s teeth.

A homeopathic medicinal product without approved therapeutic indications.

WTF does ‘without approved therapeutic indications’ mean? Perhaps there are some unapproved therapeutic indications? It is certainly sciency sounding. But it is a misleading phrase that was agreed with the MHRA and the homeopathic industry: it says that there are no medical conditions that would indicate that these pills would be effective. But why doesn’t it say that in plain English? Perhaps:

A sugar pill for which there is no medical evidence that it will have any effect on any condition whatsoever.

Where on earth did the MHRA phrase come from? Did they check to see in the average punter actually understood the message this was trying to convey? I doubt it. It is yet something else designed to mislead the public.

Misleading

That’s how Boots make homeopathy look respectable: make it look like a real medicine; make it sound powerful, yet fragile, perhaps even dangerous; give it an air of science; mimic your ‘competitors’. Build up the illusion and your customers will be unaware of the real reason they get better.

The purveyors of the nonsense that is homeopathy are misleading the public into thinking it is medicine. It’s not. It is quackery.

Support the 10:23 campaign.

Do they really think some of the magic will be rubbed off if you touch them?

16 Responses to The respectable face of homeopathy?

  • Another corking post, thanks for this.

  • Bravo Alan (claps)

  • Zeno, words fail me. An outstanding contribution to the campaign.

    :-)

    Andy
    10:23

  • I’m new to your blog, great post. The amount of sugar being the same as in a small pack of Malteasers is an interesting fact as we were trying to work out how much sugar was in them the other day.

    I wonder if this would have any bearing on severe diabetics?

    Alex
    Edinburgh Skeptics
    10:23

  • Erm, the fnords seem to be strong today. I can’t help but notice (or see past the fnords) that the Chambers definition of medicine includes the following: “4 in primitive societies: something regarded as magical or curative.”

    I have to say that that seems a fair definition of homeopathy: 200 years ago, when homeopatheticcy was invented, society was quite primitive, especially in medical knowledge, the theories behind how it works are quite clearly magical and homeopaths do regard it as curative. Maybe that’s how they get to call it ‘medicine?’

    Just trying to illuminate ;)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fnord

  • Roger

    Thanks for your comment, but what fnord?

  • Well, for me the fnord was showing definition number 4 and then ignoring it completely in your analysis. It was as though you hadn’t noticed it at all, at all. The fnord is the thing that’s stops you from seeing it. I just enjoyed the irony that the one definition of medicine that homeopathy seems to meet is the one that confirms it to be magical and woo.

    The wikipedia entry gives a good summary of a fnord. It was born out of The Illuminatus Trilogy by Bobs Shea and Wilson, a cult satire on secret societies and conspiracy theories. Sadly, some folk seem to take the novels a bit too seriously.

  • I control the Boy Sprouts via the Fiendish Fluoridators via the Fnord Motor Company.

  • Great work!

    However, you should be careful not to chuck the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. There are actually at least two good things about homeopathic medicines:

    i) Unlike some medicines (e.g., anti-biotics, estrogen), it is safe to just lob out-of-date homeopathic ones down the loo.

    ii) You could also use them for sweetening a cup of tea if your dog has just been licking your sugar bowl.

  • Not sure how much these cost but, 32 pills over 6 days – I bet that adds up to a good profit margin.

  • great post zeno.

    i think it could be possibly easier for the layman if the argument was just shorted to.

    if you have influenza do you use a product that has:

    A) been tested on wheat seed germination as proof that it works

    B) tested on people with influenza as proof that it works.

    i say influenza as its still listed on the holland and barret site for arsen. alb
    http://www.hollandandbarrett.com/pages/product_detail.asp?pid=913&afid=70&safid=ggl&scid=13435&cm_mmc=Google-_-Product-_-Nelsons%20Clikpak%20Arsen%20Alb-_-%5barsen%20alb%5d

  • Steve A

    Each sugar pill is 0.14 g and around £5 per pack of 84, making this £425 per kilo! Granulated sugar from your local supermarket costs around £1.00 per kilo – an astonishing markup!

    Nobby

    Yes, a good way of putting the argument! I do frequent H&B because I’m a vegetarian and they have some convenient stuff, but I am dismayed by more than half the shop given over to supplements, homeopathy and other unnecessary nonsense.

  • chambers 4: ..primitive societies…could be pushed !! subset of all our populations.

  • I’m sad to say that I have just taken yet another dose of 30c Arnica from the boots range (to assist with bruising from an op)and even sadder to say that I do have a sciency background – I just never bothered to find out what 30c meant. Oh dear! I’ve been had!.

  • Thx for information.

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