Despite two centuries of thorough debunking, the practice of homeopathy has grown into a $1.2 billion industry in the United States. Even more, since the medications are not considered drugs, the FDA does not police the remedies, meaning makers of the concoctions can claim curative powers for their diluted water without backing it up with evidence. But last week the Federal Trade Commission published a new "Enforcement Policy Statement" to shake up these loose regulatory measures.
"The policy statement explains that the FTC will hold efficacy and safety claims for [over the counter] homeopathic drugs to the same standard as other products making similar claims," according to an FTC release about the announcement, which was made on the heels of a workshop last year to evaluate the marketing of homeopathic remedies to consumers.
Wes Siegner, an attorney who specializes in FTC and FDA regulation tells Alan Levinovitz at Slate that the regulation isn’t really a new law, instead “it’s an official heads up that if you want to avoid litigation you need to play by the rules.”
The rules require that either the homeopathic medicines back up their health claims with scientific evidence or they must add some pretty embarrassing information to bottles. First, they must communicate that there is no documented scientific evidence that the remedies work. Second, there needs to be a disclaimer that the theory of homeopathy is based on ideas dreamt up in the 1800s and are not accepted by modern medicine.
The alternative medicine known as homeopathy was born in 1814 as the brainchild of German physician Samuel Hahnemann. The practice has two principles. First, like treats like. For instance, if a patient had a fever, Hahnemann would treat him or her with a drug that induced fever; if allergies were the problem, he would use onions that produced allergy-like symptoms. The other pillar of the practice was dilution. Hahnemann has previously suggested diluting some medicines by as much as one part in 100,000,000. He insisted that by shaking the medicine vigorously while diluting, it retained its power, which he called ‘dematerialized spiritual force’— the more a tincture was diluted, the more its supposed power.
The new announcement was met with praise from many. “This is a real victory for reason, science and the health of the American people,” Michael De Dora, public policy director for The Center for Inquiry, an organization the monitors fringe science, says in a press release. “The FTC has made the right decision to hold manufacturers accountable for the absolutely baseless assertions they make about homeopathic products.”
Steven Salzberg at Forbes reports that in its policy statement, the FTC eggs on the FDA to crack down on homeopathy and subject the compounds to the same rules other OTC drugs face, though there is no indication whether the FDA has any interest in pursuing the matter.
Still, not everyone believes the crackdown will do much to slow the sales of homeopathy. In fact, Levinovitz reports that disclaimers do little to dissuade consumers from buying sham products. And people interested in homeopathy are already skeptics of mainstream, medicine, he writes. A claim that doctors disapprove might actually be a selling point.
“Similarly, the appeal to antiquity means that mentioning homeopathy’s ancient origin will actually serve to bolster its plausibility,” he writes. “After all, goes the fallacious thinking, if it weren’t true and didn’t work how could it have stuck around for over two centuries?”