Will lawsuits spell the end of homeopathy?

Peter Jackson pjackson@thetelegram.com
Published on April 18, 2012

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