Boots the Quack

I have recently been accused of working for the ‘drug industry’ and just picking on the ‘little guys’ who are using gentle, more human, and less capitalist healing methods. Well, as I say in my definition of quackery, quack thinking can come from all quarters and all sides of the orthodox/alternative medicine camps.

‘Big Pharma’ is a word that is pejoratively used to criticise drug companies in their pursuit of profits by their stubborn refusal to embrace alternative thinking. Their profits depend somehow on them denying the legitimacy of any alternative treatment. Alternative therapies are somehow more suitable for the small practitioner who may not even be that interested in making money – apparently.

The evidence would suggest that this is not so clear cut. Alternative medicine is also huge business with people spending millions on it every year. UK Skeptics believe that is is a £1 billion per annum business in the UK. Whilst I am not sure of the exact figures, a scout around your local high street reveals a growing alternative medicine presence. What town centre these days is not complete without its Dr & Herbs, Holland and Barrett and equivalents? As we walk down the street, the shop windows are encouraging us to pop unnecessary vitamins in our gobs, create mild vacuums on our skin to draw out ‘toxins’ (or something), imbibe flower extracts and stick candles in our ears.

Holland and Barrett is not a small business. It is part of the American Drug conglomerate NBTY. Their description on their web site is that:

NBTY is a leading vertically integrated manufacturer and retailer of a broad line of high quality, value-priced nutritional supplements in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The company is currently listed as about the 800th largest firm in the US, has a market capitalisation of about $2 billion and is in the top twenty pharmaceutical firms in the US. In the UK, it is cheerfully endorsed in adverts by that 80’s pop star favourite, Kim Wilde. This is a company that is quite happy to make a healthy living by selling products that trade on the myths of ‘natural’ and ‘alternative’.

But is just not the ‘health’ food shops that cash in on alternative medicine. Boots the Chemist is the largest and most respected high street chemist in the UK. It is something of a national institution and is seen as a reliable, trustworthy retailer. More the shame then that it has a large voodoo section next to its other medicines. It sells a full range of food supplements, herbal cures and copper bracelets, much as Holland and Barrett does. It also, has a nice section devoted to Bach Flower Remedies and, most gallingly, homeopathy remedies, both branded and own brand.

Now homeopathy has been aptly described as the pons asinorum (the bridge asses have to cross) of alternative medicine. If you struggle to see why homeopathy is utter nonsense and that claims made of it are ridiculous, then we are not going to get much further on our journey together.

Homeopathy is based on two so-called laws:

  • The Principle of Similars – like causes like – re-create the symptoms of the disease somehow and you can cure the disease.
  • The Law of Infinitesimals – the more dilute an ingredient is the greater the effect it will have.

A Dr Hahnemann (1755-1843) dreamed up these laws. In the two hundred years since his inspiration, no one has managed to show that they are indeed true. In fact, the massive advancement in science since then would suggest only one thing – that these so-called laws should be dumped in the great landfill site of bonkers ideas and covered in seagull shit.

The dilution of homeopathic treatments is really the most ridiculous part. In Boots, preparations are available that are labelled as 30C. This means that the original substance has been diluted to the extend that it is impossible that any active ingredient remains. If you look a the contents label of each ‘medicine’, Boots actually admit it. In each pill there is nothing but sugar. You might as well pop next door to Woolworths and pick up some Smarties – at least you would get some chocolate.

This means that if you went into Boots and emptied all the pills on the floor, there is not an analytical technique in the world that could tell the pills apart. No amount of measurement would tell you which was which. There is not a machine sensitive enough and no nano-measurement technique that would spot any active ingredient. They are identical. Just expensive sugar pills. You really have to wonder if Boots goes to all the trouble and expense of going through the shamanic ritual of diluting the supposed active ingredient to the required level when they could just scoop a tub full of generic pills into an appropriately labelled pot. No-one would ever know the difference.

So, either all of physics and chemistry is horribly wrong or homeopathy is utter quackery. Place your bets.

But what if I am wrong? People do say it works – they can’t all be wrong. Maybe. All the effects of homeopathy can be attributed to the placebo effect. When properly controlled large trials of homeopathy are done, using double-blind randomised techniques, you cannot tell placebo groups from homeopathy groups. Its just sugar pills as we thought.

So, what happens when you write to Boots saying that you are disappointed in their promotion of quackery? Well, you get a letter back like this one I received a little while ago…

Thank you for your recent e mail.

I am sorry to hear that you feel unable to shop with us because we sell homeopathic products and other alternative remedies.

Boots prides itself on offering customers choice and, whilst some people may not believe in the products, a large number of our customers continue to find homoeopathy products beneficial for them.

Whilst this is the case and whilst the MHRA, the government’s own regulatory body, continue to regard the product as medicines that are safe for our customers to use, we will continue to offer them in our shops.

I hope this explains our decision to stock this type of product.

Thank you again for taking the trouble to e-mail us.

Kind regards.

Boots Customer Care
PO Box 5300

If you respond to this email pointing out your unhappiness with this answer then silence ensues.

So what are Boots saying here?

Boots prides itself on offering customers choice
Obviously, choice is good, even if the choice made might be a very bad one.

whilst some people may not believe in the products
Like the whole of medical science, physics and chemistry and I would wager most of your own pharmacists and scientists.

a large number of our customers continue to find homoeopathy products beneficial for them
How beneficial? About as beneficial as a smarty would be my guess. If you have proof of efficacy over and above this then your scientists will be up for a Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Whilst this is the case and whilst the MHRA, the government’s own regulatory body, continue to regard the product as medicines that are safe for our customers to use
No-one is disputing their safety! If they were dangerous, that would be as much as a miracle as if they worked. What is dangerous is Boots giving these pills an endorsement that may discourage people from seeking proper care.

we will continue to offer them in our shops
whilst sections of the public are uninformed enough to buy them, it is not illegal, and we can make big bucks from little bits of sugar.

I hope this explains our decision to stock this type of product.
Yep, you’ve said it all.

Thank you again for taking the trouble to e-mail us.

If you are outraged by Boots actions too, why not drop them some feedback at this URL?

10 Comments on Boots the Quack

  1. Tried contacting boots to ask what testing they carried out in order to be able to claim that their homeopathic snoring remedy is effective in 4 out of 5 cases. They refused to tell me how this was carried out as it’s ‘commercially sensitive information’.

    Of course, they gave me the same crap regards their stuff being legal. Seems that the only way to stop Boots from selling this shite will be to outlaw homeopathy. Considering the woo woo nature of the government right now, that seems very unlikely.

    Incidentally, some people who have blogged about Boots have been receiving visits from a company that is alleged to be doing PR work for Boots.

  2. You certainly have your hands full now, considering that quacks from the pharmaceutical industry have merged with Boots, particularly as the new quackery addition has a long record of criminal convictions!

    Very clever of you on the logo in your post. Which one did you use to make it up, Boots or Pfizer?

  3. “‘Big Pharma’ is a word that is pejoratively used to criticise drug companies in their pursuit of profits by their stubborn refusal to embrace alternative thinking.”

    Is THAT why? Researching through the internet I’ve always thought that most criticism of drug companies had little to do with alternative thinking and a great deal to do with such matters as leaked internal documents, suppression of negative trial data, conflicts of interest, a reluctance by physicians to accept that they have no legal right (under protective orders) to be informed of risks to which they may unknowingly subject their patients, and the inability of patients to understand that when it is in a drug maker’s best financial interest to withhold vital information from physicians and the public, patients have no legal right to health or in many cases, to life itself.

    Of the merger, Pfizer would have more experience of the above.

  4. As for me, I saw your critic because I was looking for a shop that sends homeopathy. Well, I must tell you that I have a lot of cystitis which is very uncomfortable and very difficult to treat. I’ve tried everything until someday I found a homeopathic treatment that really releived and treat my symptoms!
    It is not because you find homeopathy unuseful for you, and a number of people like you too, that everyone have to think so and that shop have to stop sending it. I completely agree with boots telling you that they want to maintain a choice for people who find that alternative medicine works…

  5. Well, that is my first visit to your blog! We are a group of volunteers and also starting a new initiative in a community in the exact same niche. Your blog provided us valuable information to work on. You’ve done a marvellous task!

  6. I have to say I am amazed at how disparaging the previous posts have been with regards to Boots. Let me make it clear that I am a scientist, and believe in no way that homeopathic remedies are efficacious in treating disease, which, mentioned previously has been proven in well organised clinical trials and meta-analyses, and I agree wholeheartedly that these tablets are nothing more than expensive sugar pills, but why do the previous posts target Boots? They account for a tiny proportion of the store and are in no way labelled as being a medicine with proven efficacy. The very fact that they are in the complementary therapy section should flag this in a person’s mind. Also, I would bet that you would be very hard pushed to go into a Boots store, ask for advice from the pharmacist on these products and actually be recommended one of them for treating an illness. I can almost guarantee you would first be recommended an alternative product from the traditional medicines as apposed to either homeopathic or complementary medicines. I would like to ask how many other shops stocking and selling these products have health care professionals available for advice, who fully understand these items, as I’m sure training courses in other stores such as Holland and Barrett are in no way comparable to a five year course to become a pharmacist. Perhaps we should also transfer some responsibility onto the patients; these are adults with access to information on the packs, trained healthcare assistants, technicians and pharmacists all within the store, as well as a vast wealth of information on the internet, and many recent news stories mean if patients continue to buy these products despite all this available information, then a company should not be held responsible. I have also not seen anywhere in this post anything about the recent court case in which a homeopathic swine flu remedy was produced and the producers taken to court which is of far more importance than Boots selling these products. Finally, perhaps these anti-Boots people should perhaps focus on educating the public about homeopathy, and focus on other pseudo-sciences such as crystal healing, nutritionists etc… on a final note, suppose I had a patient with non specific chronic pain, who swore by homeopathic remedies, would you prefer these believers to have their pain controlled by sugar pills, or traditional analgesics with their huge side effect profiles? Do not ever underestimate just how deep the placebo effect goes. In essence, let the believers carry on buying these pills, but do so responsibly with adequate professional help and advice available.

  7. The Claims Made By BOOTS on their Homeopathic preparations are against the Principles of Homeopathy.

    In Homeopathy There are No Treatments for specific Diseases.One Cannot say So and so Homeopathy preparation can be used against any specific diseases.

    There is every Possibility that People could get Hurt if they Use these preps instead of Getting Treated By a Doctor.

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