Will lawsuits spell the end of homeopathy?

Peter Jackson
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I’m embarrassed to admit that World Homeopathy Awareness Week, April 10-16, somehow escaped my notice. Because if there’s anything I’m dedicated to, it’s spreading awareness about homeopathy.

Fortunately. Toronto law firm Roy, Elliott, O’Connor picked up the ball.

Last week, the firm — in collaboration with Centre for Inquiry (CFI) Canada — announced a $30-million lawsuit against Shoppers Drug Mart and Boiron Inc., makers of a curious little product called Oscillococcinum.

I wrote about Oscillococcinum many years ago.

At the time, the little capsules were flying off the shelves — mostly in Europe — and Boiron was raking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Boiron’s profits have continued to soar.

Oscillococcinum is touted as a flu remedy.

It is no such thing. More on that later.

The suit alleges that Shoppers and Boiron have, in their marketing of Oscillococcinum, committed at least 12 violations of consumer protection acts. It also notes that Boiron has already paid $12 million to settle similar complaints in the U.S.

This represents a turning point in the debate over homeopathy. No longer satisfied to expose homeopathy for the fraud it is, groups like CFI Canada are now raising the stakes.

And that’s not all.

In Australia, the sister of a woman who died of rectal cancer is suing the homeopath who convinced her to ignore conventional treatment. The suit, launched last month, alleges that Penelope Dingle died because a homeopath, and Dingle’s own husband, steered her away from standard cancer treatment.

Such litigation may soon provide the means by which the homeopathy debate is finally settled. We’ll never keep snake oil off store shelves entirely, but at least those who market it will not be able to make outlandish claims.

In Britain, homeopathy is a thriving business. The National Health Service dishes out millions each year for homeopathic remedies.

But that’s changing. In 2010, a parliamentary committee recommended the government no longer fund or license homeopathy. And last month, one of Britain’s top complementary medicine advocates, Dr. Edzard Ernst, dismissed homeopathy as “dangerous and inefficient.”

Homeopathy was invented in the 19th century and is based on premises that have since been proven false. In a nutshell, it posits that extreme dilutions of agents that would normally cause illnesses will actually cure them. That idea seems sketchy enough, until you look at the dilutions involved.

Oscillococcinum, in which the “active” ingredient is duck heart and liver, is listed as 200C. That means it’s diluted by a factor of 100 to the power of 200. That means that in order to consume a single duck molecule, you’d have to drink a solution containing several times the number of atoms in the known universe.

Given that impossibility, homeopaths posit an even sillier explanation: that water retains a “memory” of the original ingredient.

How does water “remember” a few specific molecules that no longer exist — over every other microscopic substance it contains, or contained in the past?

Simple. It doesn’t. The notion is preposterous.

We are all free to do what we want with our bodies. We can place pyramids on our heads or seaweed between our toes. Given enough anecdotal buzz, people are bound to try anything.

But those who market sugar water as medicine, when they know full well it is nothing of the sort, should be prosecuted. It is fraud.

And, as cases such as that in Australia prove, it can have dire consequences.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor.

Email: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pjackson_NL

Organizations: Boiron, Shoppers Drug Mart and Boiron, CFI Canada National Health Service

Geographic location: Toronto, Canada, Australia Europe Britain

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Recent comments

  • Collin
    October 28, 2013 - 00:35

    I'm tired of everyone saying homeopathy is "alternative medicine". There are thousands of alternative medicine techniques in the world, and some of them may work. However, none of these techniques are homeopathic. There is no such thing as homeopathic medicine, because homeopathy is DEFINED as being nothing. The scientific community is making a big fuss about being the enemy of homeopathy. But the big lie is that they have any special claim in this fight. Every health worker, whether mainstream or alternative, no matter where they are in the world, no matter what their nationality is, no matter what they believe or disbelieve, is being cheated by homeopathy. Homeopathy is not an escape from Western dogma. On the contrary, it's the biggest Western Imperialist plot ever, literally Big Pharma against the world.

  • Acleron
    April 26, 2012 - 10:34

    @Laurie Willberg The Cuban vaccine was well researched and tested and found to be very effective. That is real research and real testing and precise conclusions. http://www.medicc.org/publications/medicc_review/1004/pages/cuban_medical_literature_2.html Compare that to the totally uncontrolled administration of test tube washings by the homeopaths. If the vaccine administration is not reintroduced, the Cubans will be unprotected and the next environmental change that encourages Leptospirosis will cause suffering. So please correct your database, to show the vaccine is effective. Now where is your evidence of a similar standard for any homeopathic intervention. Not just whooping cough but just any at all. Anecdotes, uncontrolled trials, unrepeated experiments and publications in homeopathy fan magazines are not considered good evidence. So please, enlighten the whole world of science and medicine with this iron clad data that no-one else in the world has ever seen.

  • John Cousin
    April 23, 2012 - 15:58

    The funny thing here is that a small group of zealots continue to try and tell us homeopathy doesn't work and how it is impossible due to "science" and its laws. The problem is, we all aren't stupid. We all are not feeling better because of placebo. The fact is, some homeopathics I have used make a clear and immediate difference, period. In the Spring, I cant breath from airborne allergies. I take a Claritin D, and 1 hour later much better. I take a homeopathic, same result. I dont need to know anything else. No, I am not going to take a homeopathic to cure my cancer, I will get chemo and radiation and l will also throw in the homeopathic & nutrition - best of everything I have seen - AND my choice! Soooo, you can tell me all about your science and theory - great. We heard you the first 1,000 times. I have no idea why, but you are wrong at least in some respects. Please stop trying to protect me from my own decisions. I don't need your help. I can choose for myself and I am sick of people trying to "protect" me. If you need to go find something to do, figure out why we have black holes, where the "dark matter" actually is that all of this "good science" sits on and all of our current laws of physics depend on, and all of the other non-sense that "this generation" of scientists spew to us as the "experts" and inevitably will be shown to be egotistical fools by the scientists of the future when they are proven wrong. Get over yourselves.

    • Peter Jackson
      April 23, 2012 - 20:31

      John, just so you understand my point, I don't give a hoot what you do with your own money. You can take water capsules and convince yourself they are curing you. (They're not.) You can claim little green men are shooting anti-allergy rayguns at you on demand. I don't really care what you imagine to be causing relief. But selling sugar water and saying it's medicine is fraud. We need consumer laws to protect the gullible from such chicanery, whether it's snake oil or damaged goods or swampland in Florida. If you're stubborn enough to buy it anyway, knock yourself out.

  • JMPA
    April 21, 2012 - 13:45

    Personally, I choose to live my life NOT based on what science says, or in fear of trying other options/alternatives to improve my health and well-being. For me, homeopathy does work and I am Healthy and Happy. Life is a Body, Mind, Spirit connection....not just the Mind.

  • Maria MacLachlan
    April 20, 2012 - 04:48

    "Even though we are given advise by our doctors/homeopaths/cardiologists, ultimately the decision is ours to make." Not in the case of Gloria Thomas, Cameron Ayres, Malka Sitna and numerous other infants, all of whom died because their parents chose homeopathy instead of proper treatment. I note the comments from those defending homeopathy here are reassuringly empty, consisting as they do of the usual anecdotes, diversions, ad hominems and appeals to popularity because that's all homeopaths have got. The fact remains that the totality of scientific evidence available to us indicates pretty clearly that homeopathy is a crock.

  • Tony Pinkus
    April 20, 2012 - 02:45

    People it's 2012 not the Middle Ages. It's time to wake up! There are more things on heaven and earth than in your philosophy. As a qualified pharmacist I moved to Homoeopathy 30 years ago because it offered a solution to cure rather than palliative and disease suppression I was providing every day for years to the same people who cam back for more. They inspired me to look further and ask questions, You cannot lie to people, they feel it and the death throes of which you speak are the fears of large pharmaceutical houses who fear cure because it is unprofitable with single doses of cheap medicines that don't have to be repeated for life. Having worked with over 5000 farmers in the UK for several decades I can attest to the fact that Homoeopathy is a reality unmatched by the author's ideas and blind prejudice. A safe effective medicine that has no side effects, enhances the health of the patient and has no residues is the death of orthodox medicine and an economical imperative for all. Remember folks, you can read all you like about riding a bike but it will never be the same as your personal experience in reality of riding it. Are you going to be dissuaded by every crackerjack who tells you it's impossible or are you going to follow your heart? It really is as simple as this. In the Middle Ages the same guy told you the Earth was flat. Are you still going to listen to him or your heart? With great love to the brave and compassion to the close minded.

    • Peter Jackson
      April 22, 2012 - 13:19

      Tony, I was surprised by your opening comment, only because it would have been my exact words to someone such as yourself. It is, indeed, a reversion to a dark and unenlightened time to believe in such bogus potions without any benefit of reason or rationality.

  • JMPA
    April 19, 2012 - 09:42

    MARIA MACLACHLAN "Do you think Penelope Dingle would have chosen a slow, agonising death instead the surgery that could have saved her life if she'd been told the truth about homeopathy?...She made a choice, along with her husband, if she had chosen surgery she may not have survived either. It doesn't have to be either one or the other in treatment, it can be a combination of both. Even though we are given advise by our doctors/homeopaths/cardiologists, ultimately the decision is ours to make. There are many people who use surgery/ chemo/radiation and don't make it, and they wish they had tried some other treatment as well. Unfortunately for her she didn't make it.

  • Laurie Willberg
    April 19, 2012 - 05:56

    This sounds like another of CFI's publicity stunts to try to garner media attention -- like that lame duck claim to be running TTC bus ads a couple of years ago running down alternative medicine that never materialized. People should realize that CFI's intentions are not only biased but openly hostile towards homeopathy, and that it's a political agenda based on philosophy that has nothing to do with science whatsoever. The fact that they're attempting to initiate a malicious lawsuit is pathetic.

  • Janardan Prajapati
    April 19, 2012 - 05:46

    though homeopathy seems to contains nothing in its solution/medicine, it actually has the power (potency) to heal, and effects can be seen. I agree that its not for emergency situations or has still to prove in the cases of cancer, TB, HIV etc. and it requires a lot of (huge) IQ to prescribe homeopathy because of similia similibus principle (like cures like). But those who have been cured by homeopathy know how clean it is. Today if homeopathy is denied to be a practice, then tommorrow Ayurvedic too will be no practice of Medicine, it will be mere a herbal food, which is wrong.

  • Maria MacLachlan
    April 19, 2012 - 04:40

    JMPA wrote "why are you so strongly opposed to homeopathy...no one is forcing it down your throat....People are free to choose what ever type of care they want." The clue is near the end of the article, if you read that far. "But those who market sugar water as medicine, when they know full well it is nothing of the sort, should be prosecuted. It is fraud." Do you think Penelope Dingle would have chosen a slow, agonising death instead the surgery that could have saved her life if she'd been told the truth about homeopathy? The evidence, written by Penelope when she knew it was too late, indicates otherwise. She chose homeopathy because she believed those she trusted that it would save her life and she desperately wanted to live. I recommend the documentary, 'Death by Homeopathy', which can be seen on youtube.

  • Acleron
    April 19, 2012 - 03:33

    There is far more danger in homeopathy than in single cases such as Penelope Dingle. Homeopaths are quite willing to advise African AIDS sufferers against medicine ARVs to take their lactose. They are present in Haiti to advise against mineral replacement therapy which is a known and effective treatment. They are in Cuba advising the government to abandon a well researched vaccine against Leptospirosis in favour of their pills. In Australia, the authorities have had to issue official statements criticising homeopaths advising against whooping cough vaccine. Their propensity for feeding of misery to their own advantage knows no bounds.

    • Laurie Willberg
      April 19, 2012 - 17:50

      Whoa there Acleron... The Findlay Insitute in Cuba abandonned conventional vaccines that were comparatively INEFFECTIVE for Homeoprophylaxis (prevention). The homeopathic intervention was created by a Cuban medical research team and their spectacular results have been published in a major medical journal. Your information on the other issues is way off opinion and not factual either. Homeopathy cannot only prevent whooping cough but cure it as well, however if you'd rather suffer that's your option. That some Aussie skeptics want to mount an anti-homeopathy campaign is pretty obvious, but people aren't buying it.

  • Dana Ullman
    April 18, 2012 - 22:19

    Dozens of surveys all over the world have consistently found that people who use homeopathic medicines and who goes to homeopaths are MORE EDUCATED than those who don't. Despite the recurrent mis-information about research on homeopathy, the Swiss government's recent report on homeopathy confirms its efficacy AND cost-efficacy. If lawsuits try to make it more difficult for homeopathic pharmacies, I simply predict that they will start charging more for their medicines...because homeopathic advocates honor the Hippocratic tradition of FIRST, DO NO HARM...and they will pay more if necessary. These lawsuits may even give the homeopathic pharmacies larger profits in the long term.

    • Iain
      April 19, 2012 - 13:54

      Good luck trying to charge more for homeopathic "remedies" once these are accurately labelled: "Active ingredient: none. Ingredients: 100% sugar." The Swiss report Dana Ullman has been hawking all over the internet was written by homeopaths and was full of junk science. Poorly designed studies, with inadequate controls or blinding, tend to favour homeopathy. Well-designed trials show it to have no effect. This pattern is the hallmark of pseudoscience. Before a well-orchestrated political campaign forced them to back down, the Swiss government made the right call and tossed homeopathy and other quack medicine off of the healthcare system.

  • working man
    April 18, 2012 - 15:43

    the title of your article is a question...well the article raises a lot more questions such as: 1) who funds the Centre For Inquiry ? perhaps Big Pharma ? 2) many people are treated by conventional cancer treatments in our hospitals... many still die from cancer..does the family then sue the hospital and/ or the doctors who provided these traditional treatments please provide balanced stories by researching nd reporting on the many successes provided Homeopathy. I personnally have no vested interest in Homeopathy other than my personal health. I believe there is room in the world for both traditional medicine and homeopathy. Just some questions to think about...

  • JMPA
    April 18, 2012 - 13:09

    As I read the article I can sense the anger and judgement from the writer....Is this about an individual??? The question that comes to me is why are you so strongly opposed to homeopathy...no one is forcing it down your throat....People are free to choose what ever type of care they want. Life is about choice, not about imposing your opinions on others......Perhaps you need to focus on yourself and your health!!!

  • Neil Sands
    April 18, 2012 - 07:58

    Penelope *Dingle* (not Pringle) died of rectal cancer, not colon cancer. Just by the way.

    • Peter Jackson
      April 18, 2012 - 08:07

      Thanks, Neil. Corrections made online.