Issue 32 / 26 August 2013

IT’S amazing what plain old water can do if you put enough marketing spin around it.

Yes, I’m talking about homeopathy again, thanks to a recent decision by the Therapeutic Products Advertising Complaints Resolution Panel.

The panel was responding to a complaint led by the indefatigable Dr Ken Harvey about ads for the Nature’s Way Kids Smart range of four so-called natural medicines “based on the healing principles of homeopathy, a natural and therapeutic system of medicine that stretches back over 200 years”.

The four products were Cold and Flu, Pain and Fever, Runny Nose and Hay Fever, and Calm (“for nervous, anxious, moody and irritable babies and children”).

Among claims made for the various products were: “effective against nasal congestion, coughs, fever, sore throat and body aches and pain”, “for the temporary relief of pain and mild fever in infants and children” and “relieves sneezing, itchy and watery eyes & sinus congestion associated with hayfever and sinusitis”.

Impressive outcomes, given that homeopathic products — as I’ve written before — are generally so diluted they may not contain a single molecule of the supposed active ingredient.

Homeopaths rely on theories about water retaining a “memory” of the substance to bolster their claim that the more dilute the preparation the more powerful it is.

This has prompted a number of wits to ask why the water wouldn’t also remember all the other things it has encountered over the course of its existence, which could cause rather a lot of confusion when you think about it.

After all, it’s been suggested every glass of water we drink might contain at least one molecule that at some point passed through the bladder of Oliver Cromwell. Imagine what the memory of that might do to us.

The homeopaths would say it’s a question of how you do the diluting — there’s a whole lot of shaking going on, apparently — but the fact remains they’ve never been able to prove their claims in a properly conducted trial (as outlined in an MJA round-up of Cochrane reviews on the subject).

In this latest case, the Complaints Resolution Panel has requested the supplier of the Kids Smart products, Pharmacare Laboratories, to publish a prominent retraction on the first page of its website including the panel’s finding that the claims made for the products were unlawful, misleading and unverified and that they “abused the trust and exploited the lack of knowledge of consumers”.

It says a similar correction notice should be placed on the websites of five online retailers — four of them pharmacies — who had advertised the products.

The products are no longer being advertised on any of these respondents’ websites (though you can still find them being promoted elsewhere online), but the corrections had yet to appear at the time of writing.

There’s still time for that to happen, but ultimately the Complaints Resolution Panel is a toothless tiger. It can “request” all it likes but it doesn’t have any muscle to back that up.

This is not just a question of protecting consumers from wasting their money on non-remedies — though that’s an issue.

More importantly, as Dr Harvey has previously pointed out, the products could pose a serious health risk if they led to children not receiving proper medical treatment, as some of the symptoms described could indicate serious disease such as bacterial meningitis.

Perhaps the biggest question is how trained pharmacists can be prepared to lend their authority to such quackery and how their professional bodies can tolerate it.

One of the online pharmacies censured by the panel, Pharmacy Direct, says on its website: “Owned and operated by pharmacists, you can be sure of uncompromising convenience backed by advice you can trust”.


Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

9 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Not so smart

  1. 316802@amamember says:

    The Complaint Resolution Panel (CRP) requested Pharmacare Laboratories (and the pharmacies involved) to publish a retraction of the claims made.  Pharmacare Laboratories have refused.

    The case has now been sent to the TGA for a “Regulation 9 order”. Typically, such cases conveniently disappear into the TGA’s infamous black hole that has swallowed numerous CRP requests for Regulation 9 orders which have yet to see the light of day. 

    Perhaps MJA InSight might like to suggest that this case now be sent to the ACCC who, unlike the TGA. do have the powers to order compliance.

  2. Sue Ieraci says:

    Of all the so-called CAMs, homeopathy must be one of the least plausible. Apart from the impossibility of a biological effect, there is abundant evidence of the lack of theraputic effect. Then there is the basic consumer issue: how can it be verified that a bottle of liquid no longer contains Nat. Mur. as opposed to no longer containting Arnica? Time for all pharmacists to remove these scams from the shelves.

  3. Colin Robinson says:

    The “Big Pharma” industry sometimes does dodgy things, therefore Homeopathy works. is not a valid argument. All well conducted trials have shown that it doesn’t work. There is no physical, chemical or biological plausability that it can work. Why is it even given a look in as a “MEDICINE”. It has only been allowed to exist by legal manuvering and political interference in the scientific process. This is the only way it has been given a free pass.

  4. Bruni Brewin says:

    I have no vested interest in homeopathy – I don’t know if it works or doesn’t.  I just don’t like biased finger pointing responses, and for those pointing their fingers would point one of my own.

    In fairness to the CAM industry.  The vested interest of those that make money through peddeling some chemical medications have shown that patients have been chmically medicated to fall to illness.   I have a file of such incidences on my computer where pharmaceutical companies, and researchers have fudged the truth for personal gain, and the unwitting doctor prescribes the medicine in good faith.  Those of us that read these outcomes have as little trust in the system as others have here on CAM practices.  However, I do have faith that most people are in their profession with honourable endeavours and training to help others.

    There are ways of putting things in a light for investigation.  Technology today is able to work with finding out those things that do or don’t work.  The two should be able to work side by side and learn from each other without thinking that we are the only way. We also know that research can put forward the point the researcher want to bring forward – not necesarrily using the correct format of evaluation.

    Even the medical profession is not blameless.  All professions require scrutiny and transparency.


  5. George Spyropoulos says:

    Hi , I’m a pharmacist , and try my best to ensure the “front of shop” products (with the exception of cosmetics) are science based and as a result, my vitamin/mineral section is quite small.  I’m very frustrated with the fact that products with unsubstantiated claims and no evidence can be sold so easily in Australia. 

    The are numerous times in a week when I’m asked about products where I have to say “It doesn’t work” to the customer. Yes many pharmacists sell homeopathic products and shame on them but why are they allowed to be sold in the first place with health claims?

    If there’s somewhere I could sign or something I could do to improve regulation of such products, let me know. Homeopathic products and a whole swag of other products should be banned from any shelves in any retail outlet. Definitely pharmacy but also health food stores and anywhere else they are sold where the public can access them. It will also take education of the public to remove the wall in their minds between alternative and western medicine. But that’s a much harder task. Baby steps…..lets start with homeopathy.

  6. Michael Fortune says:

    As a medical student at Cambridge I attended a lecture on homeopathic medicine given by a leading light from London. All quite plausible until the end when he was asked about the power of progressive dilutions. The answer-in the final dilution the molecule is split to release the power of homeopathy-enough said!

  7. Dr Philippa Gavranich says:

    I have long been concerned about the fact that pharmacists continue to trade (literally) on their status as university trained health professionals while promoting and selling products for which there is often no empirically derived evidence of efficacy. Surely this constitutes a professional conflict of interest at the very least and an outright breach of trust in regard to those who seek what they assume to be professioanl advice. How can a pharmacist ethically take money for products that they know will have little more than placebo effect?I will continue to upset individual pharmacists by questioning them about the efficacy of products they may be promoting, but feel it is high time they were taken to task for so often putting their finacial interests before their professional obligations!

  8. Peter Bowditch says:

    My grandson (now 10) has a slight development delay. When he was about 8 he watched me make a 10C preparation of ink as a rehearsal for a bigger demonstration of the idiocy of homeopathy. When I did the last dilution and succussion I asked him if he thought there was any ink in the last container. In that voice that children use when dealing with particularly dense adults, he said “No”. We then drank the contents of the flask. Remember, this is a kid who was having trouble with basic arithmetic (let alone geometric progression) but even he could see the absurdity of homeopathy. I wonder why educated adults can’t, and the only explanation I can come up with is that they see the stuff in pharmacies, have no idea how it’s made, and assume that there are some strict controls in place to prevent the sale of snake oil.

  9. Dr David De Leacy says:

    Dear Jane and fellow AMA clinicians and collegiate nurses, Could we please all lobby the AMA, the Nurses Union and Legal Boards of this country to establish a national register where all this dangerous nonsense pedalled by these 21st century snake-oil salemen can be recorded and investigated and then sent in an annual report to the state and federal health authorities and the TGA so that hopefully the wider community may be given a true account of what is occurring. As a medical practitioner who has completed thirteen years of undergraduate and post graduate training, you are required by AHPRA to be insured, to undertake approved CME/Revalidation to practice. Patients can accuse and then sue you through the courts and APHRA and you have to fight for your livelihood at huge personal cost and stress (whether or not there was a case to answer in the first place). If you are a ‘homeopath’, you require no formally recognised educational qualification, no understanding of science and no insurance. The only redress you are ever likely to receive for any injury that you caused is a possible referral to the ACCC or to a toothless health ombudsman who can do little or nothing because ‘you’ exist in a non-registered legal limbo. The federal, state and territory governments have failed to act to contol this nonsence. It took them years to do something about the anti-immunisation chiropractors and then only after strenuous AMA lobbying. Homeopaths should be mandated by law to carry practice insurance at a very high level so the legal fraternity can rapidly sort them out.

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