Why should pharmacies, which generally promote themselves as sellers of tested and reliable treatments, offer homeopathic remedies?

pharmacy-ancientRecently I wrote about a protest against Boots selling homeopathic remedies in England. A quick inspection of several pharmacies here in Dunedin, New Zealand show they do the same.

One of the products even stated it was a “homeopathic product without approved therapeutic implications (“Sleep Well”, Martin & Pleasance; my emboldening). They’re basically saying their product has no support to be used as therapeutic remedy. So then why is a pharmacy carrying it?

Are pharmacies here guilty of the line of reasoning that if the public is willing to pay for it, give it to them, regardless of if it does them any good or not?

Shouldn’t we expect pharmacies to at least make some effort to limit themselves to goods that have been shown to work?

Perhaps it is time that we insisted that claims made of a remedy can be backed with evidence? (See Time for disclaimers on remedies?, ’alternative’ or not.)

These products are implausible several ways: the amounts of the ingredients, what the treatments claim to do and the way the remedy is taken.

Here I will deal with just the first: how much is in the bottle/pill and is this amount meaningful?

The ingredient lists on these homeopathic remedies do not give the amounts of substance in them. They tell us, say, that it is a 30C dilution, but not how much was diluted. Those buying it no idea how much of the substance is in the bottle or pill. The amounts should be given in proper unit measures that specify the actual amounts, not a dilution factor. If there is nothing of the substance present, they should not be able to claim the remedy contains that substance.

For example, Naturo-Pharm offer a product, Wartoff, that contains nitric acid. ’Nitric acid 24x’ it says on the bottle of pills, but 24 times how much? (The substance can’t be described properly either. Nitric acid, proper, is a liquid. And if it were as a liquid, that’s one ingredient I’d want in highly dilute form, given that nitric acid is a strongly corrosive acid.)

Homeopathy involves extreme dilutions. I’d couldn’t do better than point to the video I featured in my previous article on homeopathy and this wonderful piece by Matt Parker writing at Times Online. Read it, it’s great.

Having pointed to these, let me add that dilution is the elimination of the original material. It’s getting rid of it.

What the repeated dilution process does is to repeatedly eliminate the “active ingredient” until there is less and less of it. A 1C dilution gets rid of all but 1 in 100 molecules of the original ingredient. 2C gets rid of all but 1 in 100 of the 1 in 100 remaining from the first dilution, leaving you with 1 for every 10,000 of the original sample. 3C leaves you with 1 for every 1,000,000 of the original. Repeat this and get to the point of only a handful of molecules of the original ingredients being left, as they do, and further dilution eliminates the original ingredient entirely.

This is clearly silly. You put stuff in, then do an overcomplicated, clumsy way of getting rid of it. You might just as well not put anything in, in the first place.

That’s why 1023‘s by-line is “there’s nothing in it”: if the remedy is truly homeopathic, whatever the initial solution started with the large number of serial dilutions will have eliminated it.

Quoting these dilution factors, rather than the amounts of the substance, lets the producers claim the remedy contains that substance even when it cannot possibly. Misleading labelling.

Ingredients should be listed by the actual amounts present, not dilutions. Ingredients that cannot be demonstrated to be in the remedy should not be listed.

So what’s this stuff doing in pharmacies?

More articles that might interest you in Code for life:

British homeopathy sceptics group aims for sugar high (with Dawkins video)

Time for disclaimers on remedies?, “alternative” or not

Deleting a gene can turn an ovary into a testis in adult mammals

Monday potpourri: maps, malaria in the USA, cholera in Dunedin and vaccines

Autistic children and blood mercury levels

Metagenomics-finding organisms from their genomes

Genetic tests and personalised medicine

(Image source: wikipedia.)