The 10:23 campaign has now had loads of publicity and Boots have failed to address any of the central concerns: mainly, that homeopathy is a daft pseudoscience. Moreover, the pharmacy profession and the drugs regulator have remained silent.
In all likelihood, Boots will not withdraw their sugar pills and pharmacists will continue to take your money in exchange for pseudo-medicine. An immediate capitulation was never on the cards – the world does not work like that. But the Boots brand has been damaged as thousands of people have become aware of just what they are prepared to sell you in order to make money.
And let us also take on board the homeopaths argument that banning homeopathy would ‘restrict customer choice’. (Even though 10:23 did not seek to ‘ban’ homeopathy, only remove it from the pharmacy counter and, perhaps, into the health food shop next to the crystals.)
The campaign was really about making sure people understood what homeopathy is: it is not a herbal medicine, as herbs are often not used and any content gets diluted to the point where there is often nothing left. You are buying sugar pills that have had ritual magic performed on them.
As I have said, the villains here are the medicine regulators who allow deceptive labelling of these products. The MHRA say that they test the labels to make sure the public understand what they are buying. This is not true, as their recent submission to the House of Commons revealed. Nothing in their testing asked if customers understood they were buying pills that stated they contained an ingredient but that actually contained nothing, and that there was no reason to believe the pills did anything other than act as a placebo.
The legal blogger Jack of Kent has done a superb job of deconstructing the language on the labels.
Other industries have to battle with the problem with how to convey important information to the consumer that may affect buying considerations based on health: notably the food industry. In the last few years we have seen ‘traffic lights’ highlighting, for example the amount of salt in a ready meal.
Why shouldn’t the packaging of items in the pharmacy not be subject to the same clear labelling requirements?
As Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary medicine, has said,
My plea is simply for honesty. Let people buy what they want, but tell them the truth about what they are buying. These treatments are biologically implausible and the clinical tests have shown they don’t do anything at all in human beings. The argument that this information is not relevant or important for customers is quite simply ridiculous. If [pharmacists] are unable to stick to their ethical code, then they should change their code and be clear that it is alright to put profits before patients.
If we were expecting pharmacists to be honest, what would a typical homeopathic product label looks like? I suggest the following:
This quickly gets the key facts across that distinguish the product from others that might have survived some testing. After reading this, most people ought to be able to make an informed decision, and if you are the sort of person who uses crystals for deodorant then you still have your ‘right’ to buy this stuff. Everybody is happy.
Could we ever see such labelling? Somehow I doubt it, for a number of reasons.The government appears to be incapable of taking a position on pseudoscience. Indeed it has recently said that “The government does not find it helpful to define pseudoscience.”
I am sure the businesses behind the pharmacies would resist such a move fiercely as it might be difficult to see how any reasonable person would purchase a product labelled as such. The pharmacists would undoubtedly resist it as it would expose them as having being flogging worthless shit for years. Plus, their ranks appear to be filled with supporters of pseudomedicines. The recently departed president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, the regulatory body of pharmacists, is now doing this. (Please empty your mouth of liquids before clicking link as otherwise your screen will get wet.)
Plus, and this is a big one, I would imagine that the majority of products for sale in a pharmacy such as Boots, homeopathic, complementary or regular, would be more likely to have red circles than green ones.
The fact that we could, in principle, have such a scheme and the distance we appear from being able to adopt something like this tells us how little our modern pharmacies have progressed from the quack’s apothecary of old.
Thanks to Richard’s suggestion in the comments that the homeopathy in Boots simply be moved to a section labelled ‘Placebos’.
Of course we get into a dilemma then when the professionals tell you they are giving you a placebo as is so well observed in the (hugely underrated) Smack the Pony sketch…