Promoters of homeopathic treatments may face an uphill battle later this year as the Federal Trade Commission takes a closer look at their claims. The FTC announced yesterday that it is hosting a public workshop on Sept. 21 to examine advertising for over-the-counter “homeopathic” products.
The FTC said that the workshop will cover topics including:
A look at changes in the homeopathic market, its advertising, and what consumers know;
The science behind homeopathy and its effectiveness;
The effects of recent class actions against homeopathic product companies;
The application of Section 5 of the FTC Act to advertising claims for homeopathic products; and
Public policy concerns about the current regulation of homeopathic products.
Section 5 of the FTC act bars unfair or deceptive practices in interstate commerce.
Homeopathic fans seeking proof of the “science behind homeopathy and its effectiveness” will have their work cut out for them, because outside of unverifiable anecdotes or poorly controlled studies which fall apart upon closer examination, no such evidence actually exists.
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 medicine in the 1700s – some of the bloodletting prescriptions from that time called for draining more blood out of a patient than an adult human body actually holds – it's true that in those days, getting no medical treatment at all (or taking a placebo) was often a better option than seeking what passed for official medical attention at the time.
But the frontiers of medical knowledge have advanced considerably since the 1700s, while homeopathy has remained the same.
The water remembers
Homeopaths believe 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 single drop of alcohol.
As the National Institutes of Health noted in a background paper it produced on homeopathy, “it is not possible to explain in scientific terms how a remedy containing little or no active ingredient can have any effect.”
Public comments to the FTC can be submitted electronically here.