PhotoThe Food and Drug Administration announced yesterday that it will be hosting a two-day public hearing late in April, on the topic of homeopathic product regulation.

The purpose of this hearing, as explained on the FDA's website, is “to obtain information and comments from stakeholders about the current use of human drug and biological products labeled as homeopathic, as well as the Agency’s regulatory framework for such products.”

The hearing will take place April 20 and 21 at the FDA's White Oak Campus in Silver Spring, Maryland (a suburb of Washington, D.C.), though the agency will also host a live webcast of the event.

The FDA's online compliance manual offers this capsule summary of the subject:

The term "homeopathy" is derived from the Greek words homeo (similar) and pathos (suffering or disease). The first basic principles of homeopathy were formulated by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700's. The practice of homeopathy is based on the belief that disease symptoms can be cured by small doses of substances which produce similar symptoms in healthy people.

To be fair: such an idea sounded plausible in the 1700s, before humanity discovered the germ theory of disease in the 1860s.

And given the abysmally ignorant state of medical knowledge in the 1700s – some of the official bloodletting prescriptions of the time called for draining more blood out of the patient than a typical adult human body actually contains – it's true that in those days, getting no medical treatment at all (or taking a placebo) was often a better option than seeking official medical attention.

Science has advanced

But medical science has advanced considerably since the 1700s, while homeopathy has remained the same. Homeopaths claim that diluting substances in water actually makes those substances more potent, and that water can “remember” and maintain the qualities of substances once diluted in it. If you inspect the ingredients label of a homeopathic product, you’ll see the “active” ingredients are usually measured in C units: “This ingredient 6C,” “that ingredient 30C,” and so forth.

They’re not talking about temperature measured in Celsius; the C in homeopathy stands for “centesimal,” which is another way of saying “dilute to one part in a hundred.”

Suppose you have a shotglass full of whiskey and want to dilute/strengthen it according to homeopathic principles. If you combine one drop of whiskey with 99 drops of water, you'll get 1C whiskey, which is 99 percent water and 1 percent whiskey.

Combining one drop of 1C whiskey with 99 drops of water results in 2C whiskey, which is 99.99 percent water and 0.01 percent whiskey. One drop of 2C added to 99 drops of water makes 3C, which is water containing 0.0001 percent whiskey, and so on.

Once you reach 12C you crash against the physical barrier of Avogadro’s limit, which means that your 12C whiskey probably doesn’t contain even a single molecule of alcohol. Yet, if the homeopathic “dilution increases strength” idea were true, drinking a glass of that 12C water should give you a much stronger alcoholic buzz than a glass of undiluted whiskey, and a glass of 200C water would presumably make you pass out from booze intoxication even though you never downed a singledrop of alcohol.

Not remotely funny

While the thought of someone watering down alcoholic beverages in hope of increasing their potency might be worth a laugh or two, there's nothing remotely funny about watering down otherwise-effective doses of medication – or, more likely, ignoring effective medical treatments altogether in lieu of drinking watery homeopathic quack-juice. Either choice can lead to disastrous consequences.

Earlier this month, Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) completed an extensive review of previous studies on homeopathic remedies, yet “found no good quality, well-designed studies with enough participants to support the idea that homeopathy works better than a placebo, or causes health improvements equal to those of another treatment.” Though there are studies claiming efficacy for various homeopathic remedies, a closer look revealed “the quality of those studies was assessed as being small and/or of poor quality. These studies had either too few participants, poor design, poor conduct and or reporting to allow reliable conclusions to be drawn on the effectiveness of homeopathy.”

It is no exaggeration to say that a glass of tap water from a random American public water supply probably contains higher levels of active medical ingredients than any bottle of “homeopathic medicine” on the market, especially homeopathic medicine rated 12C or higher. Consider this: back in 2008, the Associated Press published the results of a five-month investigation showing that the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans contain traces of pharmaceutical products.

A vast array of pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, an Associated Press investigation shows.

To be sure, the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. Also, utilities insist their water is safe.

Chances are those utilities are right: medicines — even outright poisons — won’t affect you when taken in such vanishingly small amounts. The AP discovered traces of contraceptives in the public water supplies of multiple municipalities where children continued to be conceived and born even though every woman (and man) in town took daily doses of homeopathic hormonal birth control pills.

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission has gone after several marketers for making unsupported claims about homeopathic drugs. In 2010, the manufacturer of Cold MD, Germ MD and other products was fined $5.5 million on false advertising charges.

In October 2013, the FTC sued the maker of “HCG Platinum” diet products, which claimed to homeopathically make unwanted fat melt away.

That same month, a group of parents filed a class-action suit against another homeopathic producer, HomeoLab, claiming that it's “KidsRelief” brand homeopathic cold and flu remedies “are worthless, and HomeoLab unfairly, deceptively and unjustly enriches itself o[n] the backs of children to turn a corporate profit.”

Despite the claims of their supporters, consumers looking for effective healthcare should avoid all homeopathic medicines. In the best-case scenario, you’ll waste your money. In the worst-case scenario, you could die of what would have been an easily treatable illness, had you relied on 21st-century medical knowledge rather than believed the guesses of an 18th-century German who lived and died too early to even know that viruses cause the common cold.

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