A British plea for sensible policy on unscientific remedies


A new report from Britain on the ineffectiveness of homeopathic medicine should set off alarm bells in Canada. The MPs on the British House of Commons science and technology committee issued a report this week that says homeopathic remedies don’t work.

Having studied the available research, the committee takes aim at Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency for licensing homeopathic treatments—giving consumers the misleading impression they are somehow comparable to approved drugs backed by science.

Lest Canadians imagine that putting a government seal of approval on imaginary cures is an amusing example of English eccentricity, I’m sorry to have to point out that Health Canada’s Natural Health Products Directorate does the same thing.

The federal directorate licences vitamins and minerals, herbal cures, traditional medicines like the Chinese kind, and homeopathic remedies. Its website says it aims to make sure Canadians have “access to natural health products that are safe, effective and of high quality, while respecting freedom of choice and philosophical and cultural diversity.”

Well, it’s doing a fine job on the respecting choice and diversity part. But when it comes to ensuring that products are “effective,” I’m not so sure.

Applicants for federal government licences for homeopathetic medicine must submit “evidence to support the safety, efficacy and quality” of their products. The permitted evidence, however, includes “references to traditional use” and “homeopathic materials,” “homeopathic pharmacopoeias.” Also “homeopathic provings,” whatever those might be.

I’ve written about the shortcomings of the Natural Health Products Directorate before, and I’d recommend this commentary from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. As the British news suggests, it’s hard to understand why any government would get into the business of lending credibility to supposed health products whose manufacturers make claims that aren’t supported by science.


A British plea for sensible policy on unscientific remedies

  1. Because as a whole it's superior to regulating them as actual pharmaceuticals or not regulating them at all?

  2. Worst case scenario homeopathic remedies are (tiny amounts) of tinctures or sugar pills absent of any active ingredient, that do nothing.

    In the context of lax regulation of potentially toxic drugs repurposed for secondary illnesses they were never tested for, thousands of adverse effects each year from taking pharmaceuticals in the manner prescribed, and thousands more from errors in administration, either by a health professional or the patient themselves, why would we even begin to worry about the regulation of homeopathy?

    The roof is ripped off the house and rain is pouring in, but instead of focussing on the roof you want we should instead be evaluating the effectiveness of dehumidifiers?

      • Or, type "Homeopathy, Cancer" into Google, and you'll see any number of "doctors" who claim to treat/cure/remedy cancer with homeopathic methods. Until you actually get cancer, these claims look silly. When you get the diagnosis, you'll believe almost anything, especially someone offering a nice, easy cure, for a low low price.

        From the top homeopathy site link off of google, some interesting info about Type 1 Diabetes.

        — Insulin
        Long before the discovery of Insulin Dr.Pierre Jousset of Paris prepared a pancreatic juice on a glycerine basis which he administered to diabetic patients in doses of 10 or 20 drops a day in water and had results sufficiently good to consider pancreatic juice, orally administered, as a remedy of great value in diabetes. Dr. Cartier, his practical successor, praised it insisted on smaller doses given by mouth as larger doses and hypodermic injections of it had no effect in ordinary diabetes. Baker advises the homoeopathic strengths of Insulin 3d to 30th and reports happy results therefrom. Great care must be taken not to overdose. Boericke says that it maintains the blood sugar at a normal level and the urine remains free of sugar. Epileptic convulsions and mental derangements have been produced by hypodermic use of this hormone.

        Show this to a Type 1 diabetic, then run…

        • Unsure if it was homeopathy specifically, but when my great-aunt was diagnosed with cancer last year she went for the "natural" treatment instead of working with her doctors. By the time she realized the treatment she was getting wasn't doing anything, it was too late. If she'd been treated by actual doctors from the start, she'd likely still be alive.

      • Your example is about rejecting other forms of medical intervention, not dying from homeopathic remedies.

        They could have done the same with an unfounded belief that their daughter would be cured by looking at the moon, dancing or prayer, all of which are also harmless, and not in need of regulation.

        Following your logic, you'd also have to conclude that diabetes and heart medicines killed all the people who were non-compliant with their prescritpions.

      • Meanwhile there are real adverse effects from pharmaceuticals in 7.5% of hospital admissions in Canada, and about half of those are preventable. http://tiny.cc/pnz3r (a real journal not a paranoia website). A simila meta-study in the US in JAMA found "serious adverse and fatal effects" in 6.7% of American hospitals, with the fatality rate .32% or 76000-137000 patients. (This is just for hospitalized patients, not all the home prescriptions, self-medication, overdoses, abuse and mistakes including kids who get into the home medicine cabinet.)

        So there you have actual documented harm and death, at lest half of it preventable according to reputable medical journals and we're supposed to get exercised about people who choose to swallow tiny sugar pills?

  3. It does kind of violate the atomic theory to suggest that one can dilute something ad infinitum and still have any left.
    Just saying'.

    • Damnit, now you've made me go and agree with you.

      • Sorry dude. Don't worry though, I'm sure this too shall pass.

        • But, but, how can I maintain my staunchly "Anti-Guan" standard….hold on….

          Antiguan? Damnit, now my political stance will force me to move to Antigua….

          • It's "Gaun", as in "the island than which no greater can be thought", not "Guan" as in bat poop, see.

            However, I realize the quality of my comments might lead to some confusion in that regard….

          • expect to hear GaunGuan following a comment soon

          • Gaun with the wind?

  4. As Critical might say "fun fact": placebo effects can be large!

    from a 2002 publication (Epilepsy & Behavior Volume 3, Issue 6, December 2002, Pages 532-534) study on the magnitude of the placebo effect…

    "In randomized trials of antiepileptic agents for epilepsy, 9.3–16.6% of patients in the placebo arm had a >50% reduction in seizure frequency. This effect represents 20–50% of the effect observed with active agents."

    So the statement that a treatment is akin to sugar pills is not really very damming… sugar pills are inexpensive, have few side effects and are fairly effective as a medical treatment.

    • Sugar pills do nothing, at all. It's the lie that they're effective, not the content, that gives them any power. That said, I'm all for lying to patients and using placebos, because it does seem to work, but it's a psychological treatment, not a medical one.

  5. Homeopathy is a fraud, and should not be licenced as real medicine.

    James Randis "Million Dollar Challenge" extends not only to psychics, and dowsers, but to homeopathic drugs too!

    For anyone unsure about the "efficacy" of homeopathic drugs, Mr. Randi does a masterful job explaining it here:


  6. This is now a good number of blog posts from you over the past few days. Please, continue.

  7. Sadly, the perceived legitimacy of naturopathy, which, like homeopathy, lacks any evidence of effectiveness, is growing. Naturopathic doctors, whatever that means, can prescribe certain medicines and do minor surgeries in BC, and are fighting for that power in Ontario as well.

    There's something positive to be said about expanding prescription powers for health care workers when it comes to medications that have a long history of safe, effective use, since we have a lack of doctors (and a doctor really isn't necessary in many routine situations). But those power should really be saved for those with training in the practice of evidence-based medicine – registered nurses, trained clinical psychologists, and the growing area of physician assistants.

    It's quite scary that regulations meant to keep potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals out of the control of people without the adequate knowledge to administer them properly may now be putting those pharmaceuticals in the hands of a group that not only does not have that necessary knowledge, but actively shuns it.

    • "putting those pharmaceuticals in the hands of a group that not only does not have that necessary knowledge, but actively shuns it."

      You clearly know nothing about naturopathy. It's a regulated profession – no random hippie can hang out a shingle and call themselves a Naturopath. And Naturopaths don't reject western medicine, they us different tools and approaches and they know when they've reached the limits of those tools.

      As for prescription powers, they absolutely do have the necessary training to use them effectively and safely. Sheesh.

  8. Excerpt from a reply to a reply above:

    Meanwhile there are real adverse effects from pharmaceuticals in 7.5% of hospital admissions in Canada, and about half of those are preventable. http://tiny.cc/pnz3r. A simila meta-study in the US in JAMA found "serious adverse and fatal effects" in 6.7% of American hospitals, with the fatality rate .32% or 76000-137000 patients. (This is just for hospitalized patients, not all the home prescriptions, self-medication, overdoses, abuse and mistakes including kids who get into the home medicine cabinet.)

    With that kind of calamity underway sugar pills are the least of our worries, especially since we've demonstrated that we are unable to properly regulate the safe distribution of medicines.

    • What an utterly worthless statistic in this debate.

      Of course there is a danger in using pharmaceuticals, especially newer ones, or ones that do not work uniformly for the majority of people for whom they're prescribed. Doctors do make mistakes, no doubt, they're not perfect, not denying that either.

      But the reason that pharmaceuticals can have such side-effects is because they actually do something! Placebos do nothing but ease a patient's mind. That's a powerful tool, but it is meaningless if the issue is one that can't be solved through psychological changes alone. Placebos can't cure cancer, they can't treat diabetes, they can't do a lot of things that drugs can.

      As I said, your statistic is meaningless, because there is no context. The only important statistic is what are the survival rates and/or rates of recovery/improved quality of life for going to a naturopathic doctor vs. going a hospital/MD. 7.5% real adverse effects from pharmaceuticals for hospitalized patients? How many those patients (both those who had adverse effects and those who didn't) would have died or had significantly reduced quality of life had they not gone to the hospital?

      • Oh hell I'll even grant tobyornottoby the point for the sake of the argument. Cracking down on homeopathy and trying to make real pharmaceuticals safer is not an either/or proposition. We can walk and chew gum at the same time if we choose to.

        The idea that "sugar pills" are harmless is a dangerous misinformed position. Right now we have Health Canada peddling woo medicine as a recommended alternative (whether actively or passively). This is dangerous as it provides a false sense of security in seeking "alternative" therapies. It encourages people to make the wrong choice.

        This is not limited to homepathic remedies either. So called traditional remedies are included in this. Those can have powerful drugs and/or chemicals in them, often containing wildly varying dosage levels. That's risking nasty side effects that tobyornottoby is so hot to trot about.

        Anything peddled as medicine can have chemicals in it that cause adverse reactions. Which is why we need proper testing to determine what works, at what dosage and with what side effects or risks. The effectiveness of a drug has no bearing on its safety, and vice versa. We need to test and regulate to ensure both outcomes are achieved.

        • But we're not walking OR chewing gum, and the lobby to regualte herbs (which have some validity) and homeopathy is coming from the medical and pharmaceutical industries which are deflecting instead of dealing with their problem.

          I say, let's learn to walk first, and we'll pop in a stick of gum once we can do that without so many people falling down with adverse effects.

        • And if we're cracking down, how about if we crack down on the specious health claims being made by Red Bull and so-called energy drinks, or soft drinks, or the specious claims made by the diet industry, or even the b.s, that cereal manufacturers and yogurt peddlers are spewing on TV? My entire point is that there are so many targets having a much greater impact on public health than homeopathy ever could, that it's like having a one person homicide department while we're recruting a hundred officer graffiti squad.

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