How the U.S. Government Is Cracking Down on Scientific Quackery

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The Federal Trade Commission has a new policy for homeopathic medications: Marketers must tell consumers that they don’t really work.

By Kate Wheeling

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Drawers containing homeopathic remedies. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Homeopathy is at least as old as the telegraph, and, for a modern man, it’s about as useful. The idea behind this particular strain of alternative medicine is that “like cures like.” In other words, drugs that produce the same symptoms to be cured should be diluted to almost undetectable levels and administered to patients. It’s no real surprise that a medicine with no active ingredients would have no effect on human health — except maybe to allow illnesses to fester without true medical intervention. But this has not prevented homeopathy from becoming a $3 billion industry in the United States.

Now, the government is finally pushing back. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission issued a new policy statement explaining that homeopathic drug marketers must have evidence to back up claims about homeopathic treatments’ efficacy — or include a disclaimer on the label explaining that homeopathic drugs don’t work.

The FTC has always required advertisers to have “competent and reliable scientific evidence” to back up claims about health and efficacy. For health claims, that almost always means a well-designed clinical trial with human subjects. But as Vox’s Julia Belluz points out, there are no studies showing homeopathic drugs actually work:

The scientific community is monolithically stacked against homeopathy. There have been many studies, books, and investigations demonstrating that this type of therapy is bogus. There’s so much evidence on homeopathy’s failure to help people, in fact, that some researchers have argued it’s time to stop investing government research funding on this alternative therapy in favor of putting it into treatments that might actually help people.

The most exhaustive review of the evidence for homeopathy yet came out of the Australian government. Its conclusion: The treatment doesn’t work, and people should stop wasting their time, money, and potentially their health on what amounts to junk science.

Somehow, homeopathic marketers have skirted the FTC’s regulations for years, building up a loyal base of users who have misconstrued the placebo effect of homeopathic remedies for potency. According to the FTC, marketers need to include more explanatory information on their labels so that consumers aren’t misled to believe that a homeopathic product cures, say, cancer just because the label indicates as much. Essentially, marketers can continue making false, unscientific claims about which symptoms and illnesses can be treated by homeopathic drugs, so long as they make two things clear, per the FTC:

  • “There is no scientific evidence that the product works.”
  • “The product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.”

Of course, these caveats only work if consumers take them to mean that the homeopathic product is ineffective. And the FTC acknowledges that even these statements might not be enough to get that message through. “In light of the inherent contradiction in asserting that a product is effective and also disclosing that there is no scientific evidence for such an assertion, it is possible that depending on how they are presented many of these disclosures will be insufficient to prevent consumer deception,” the policy statement reads. If it turns out consumers still believe homeopathic drugs can cure whichever diseases they claim to, then marketers will still be in violation of FTC policies.

Unfortunately, if the wild proliferation of fake news sites has taught us anything, it’s that when presented with conflicting information, humans will simply choose to believe whichever slant suits them.

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