The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has had it with marketers of homeopathic products. The agency has ruled [PDF] that all homeopathic products must now be labeled with a warning that there is no scientific evidence that they actually work.
The theory behind homeopathy is, itself, a little hard to swallow. Practitioners believe that whatever causes an illness must also be able to cure it, and that diluting a chemical can transform it from toxin to treatment. But even if that were true, the homeopathic products on store shelves today are so watered down that you’d need to take hundreds of thousands of doses in order to ingest a single molecule of the so-called active ingredient.
Scientists have been studying homeopathic remedies for as long as people have been using them, yet they’ve found no evidence that these products are any better than a placebo. These products cannot do what they say they can do—but until now, they’ve been allowed to go on saying it anyway.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates, well, food and drugs. Herbal supplements and other so-called natural remedies are largely outside their purview. This lack of government oversight has enabled the explosion of a multi-billion-dollar industry in which an untested bottle of pills could claim to cure anything from cellulite to cancer.
The FTC can’t do anything about a drug’s efficacy or safety, but it can do something about all those unsubstantiated claims. The agency released a 24-page report [PDF] on homeopathy advertising and sales that concluded, “No convincing reasons have been advanced … as to why efficacy and safety claims for OTC homeopathic drugs should not be held to the same truth-in-advertising standards as other products claiming health benefits.”
The agency’s new ruling gives homeopathic product marketers two choices: Either they can stop making unsubstantiated claims about their products, or they can add a warning to their drugs’ packaging. The warnings must communicate that a) there is no scientific evidence that the product works; and b) that the claims made on the package are based on outdated, unproven theories that are not accepted by modern scientists or doctors.
Telling consumers the truth is a step in the right direction, although it may be too little too late. Numerous studies have shown that we don’t actually read or heed a package’s disclaimers. The FTC’s own report found that 25 to 45 percent of consumers believed that a sample product had been approved by the FDA. They continued to believe this even after reading a warning on the package that clearly stated the opposite.
“It’s embarrassing to admit because it sounds like people are stupid,” advertising lawyer Rebecca Tushnet told Slate in 2014. “In fact, people are human. They have limiting processing capacity, and you can’t just stuff information down their gullet.”
You’re a smart reader (we know this because you’re on our site). If you want to avoid getting ripped off, apply those savvy reading skills the next time you’re in the pharmacy.