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Homeopathic claims to come under closer scrutiny, FTC warns

Unfounded beliefs from the 1700s can't be presented as scientific fact

Photo (c) Szasz-Fabian Erika - Fotolia
Homeopathy is sort of like religion. Lots of people believe in it even though there is no scientific evidence to support it. That's not necessarily bad in the case of religion, which provides spiritual comfort and moral guidance to millions, but when it comes to treating illness, choosing the wrong treatment can be harmful.

That's why the Federal Trade Commission has decided to start treating marketing claims about homepathic products the same way it treats other products making similar claims -- like drugs, in other words.

This is not good news for the homeopathic business, which dates back to the 1700s and is more similar to astrology or witchcraft than to modern medicine. Or as an Australian medical organization put it in a massive study last year: " The review 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."

Watered down

Homeopathy basically believes that using a tiny bit of a substance that in larger quantities produces illness can cure or prevent that illness. This is an idea that is, at best, odd, as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) explained in a background paper on homeopathy which diplomatically said that “it is not possible to explain in scientific terms how a remedy containing little or no active ingredient can have any effect."

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.

Of course, anyone can believe anything they wish, but when they begin advertising and hawking supposed cures that could entice consumers to ignore scientifically proven treatments, it becomes a matter for agencies like the FTC, which has spent years taking public testimony and pondering what to do about homeopathic claims.

Same standard

In a new policy statement issued this week, the agency explains that it will hold efficacy and safety claims for over-the-counter homeopathic drugs to the same standard as other products making similar claims.

This means simply that companies must have competent and reliable scientific evidence for health-related claims, including claims that a product can treat specific conditions. 

The statement leaves little doubt that traditional beliefs in the potency of homeopathic medicines won't carry much weight. In most cases, the statement says, “the case for efficacy is based solely on traditional homeopathic theories and there are no valid studies using current scientific methods showing the product’s efficacy.” As such, the marketing claims for these products are likely misleading, in violation of the FTC Act.

Clear disclosures

The statement provides a little slack for homeopathic marketers, saying that "additional explanatory information" may balance claims that can't be supported by science. 

Thus, a company may get under the wire if it includes clear statements that  1) there is no scientific evidence that the product works; and 2) the product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.

The policy statement notes that any such disclosures should stand out and be in close proximity to the product’s efficacy message and might need to be incorporated into that message. It also warns marketers not to undercut a disclosure with additional positive statements or consumer endorsements reinforcing a product’s efficacy.

The statement warns that the FTC will carefully scrutinize the net impression of OTC homeopathic marketing claims and that if an ad conveys more substantiation than a marketer has, it will violate the FTC Act.  

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