25 May 2012

Advertising Homeopathy

In a recent item in the leading Australian interdisciplinary academic forum I noted the potential scope for Australian consumer protection law to address claims by vendors of homeopathic pills and potions, referring to action by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) regarding the advertising of ‘bio magnetic therapy’ products [PDF] and the wrist "power band" that had been strongly promoted by celebrities. The ACCC politely commented that "Suppliers ... must ensure that they are not claiming supposed benefits when there is no supportive scientific evidence. Consumers should be wary of other similar products on the market that make unsubstantiated claims, when they may be no more beneficial than a rubber band".

The item about US and Canadian class action against a homeopathic influenza product is interesting because the tenet of extreme dilution that is central to homeopathy - "the more dilute the remedy, the greater its potency", aka the “law of the infinitesimal dose” - means that a pharmacologically active compound is undetectable in many homeopathic pills, potions and salves. If that compound can not be detected - and by implication is not present - claims that the product is chemically efficacious (as distinct from the placebo effect) are deceptive. Commercial deception can be addressed under consumer protection law.

(In relation to the placebo effect it is worth recalling the 2010 report by UK House of Commons Science & Technology Committee on homeopathy [PDF], which commented that “beyond ethical issues and the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship, prescribing pure placebos is bad medicine”.)

The North American litigation centres on the argument that the consumers of the flu 'remedy' are in fact paying for expensive sachets of coloured and flavoured sugar that contain no active ingredients. Marketing of the remedy as having active ingredients is deceptive.

From a therapeutic perspective those consumers might get greater benefits from keeping warm and hydrated, cuddling the family dog, getting some sleep or otherwise letting their bodies cure themselves rather than indulging in what - from a medical perspective - is the equivalent of voodoo.

An ACCC media release earlier this month stated that -
Homeopathy Plus! Pty Ltd has removed representations from its website that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission considered to be misleading and deceptive and that could lead to serious health risks for consumers. 
The representations were made on the ‘Whooping Cough – Homeopathic Prevention and Treatment’ page which has since been removed from the Homeopathy Plus! website. 
“The combination of claims that the vaccine was ineffective and that the homeopathic remedies listed on the page were an alternative prevention and treatment regime elevated this matter to one of extreme concern,” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said. 
The ACCC examined content on the Homeopathy Plus! website following a complaint from the medical profession. The ACCC considered that the Homeopathy Plus! claims that the current whooping cough vaccine is dangerous and ineffective, while the homeopathic remedy is a proven and safe alternative, were likely to be misleading or deceptive. 
Reliance on these claims may influence consumers to avoid the whooping cough vaccine and rely solely on the homeopathic approach for treatment and prevention of whooping cough, which is strongly discouraged by medical professionals. Whooping cough is a serious respiratory infection which can cause a long coughing illness and is life threatening for babies. 
The ACCC result was considerably assisted by the engagement of the Therapeutic Goods Administration and NSW Fair Trading with Homeopathy Plus! Pty Ltd in resolving this matter. 
The ACCC will continue to monitor the Homeopathy Plus! Pty Ltd site for potential breaches of the Australian Consumer Law.
Implicitly, parents may indulge themselves with the contemporary version of 1920s snake oil but should not injure their own children or other families through reliance on 'alternative medicine'. Vendors should not make deceptive claims.