The Government Has a Reality Check for Fans of Homeopathic Medicine

Vials containing pills for homeopathic remedies are displayed at a pharmacy

Vials containing pills for homeopathic remedies are displayed at a pharmacy | Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

A walk through a health food or supplement store like Whole Foods or GNC can be an overwhelming experience. There are dozens upon dozens of supplements, homeopathic medicines, and all-natural cure-alls for anything that’s bugging you. Some of this stuff might be the key to helping you shake any physical or psychological ills you’re grappling with. More than likely, however, it’s not going to do much at all.

It’s hard to tell — and what makes buying homeopathic medicines and supplements such a gamble. These are products that are largely unregulated, and may not deliver on their promises. That’s not to say they don’t work, but there’s a reason much of the scientific community views them with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The government’s numerous agencies dedicated to consumer protection involving what we eat or drink — the FDA, for example — has largely stayed away from these products. But that may be about to change. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) appears to be wading into the fray.

In what looks to be a first, the FTC issued a statement that said homeopathic medicines and remedies have to be held up to new standards. Specifically, they have to have credible scientific data to back up the claims and promises about their abilities to treat certain medical issues.

For example, if you see a bottle of “Squirrel Tails” in a supermarket that promise to rid you of acne? There needs to be some evidence to back it up — or the manufacturer has to state  there is no evidence, right there on the label.

Coming changes

Sunrise at the U.S. Capitol

Sunrise at the U.S. Capitol | Chris Maddaloni/Getty Images

That’s really the biggest change consumers can expect to see out of the FTC’s move. The policy extends only to over-the-counter medicines and treatments, and “it applies only to OTC products intended solely for self-limiting disease conditions amenable to self-diagnosis of symptoms and treatment,” the statement said.

“Homeopathy, which dates back to the late-eighteenth century, is based on the view that disease symptoms can be treated by minute doses of substances that produce similar symptoms when provided in larger doses to healthy people,” the FTC’s statement continues. The problem? “Many homeopathic products are diluted to such an extent that they no longer contain detectable levels of the initial substance.” This means most medical professionals don’t buy into the claims, despite so much popularity among the public.

It’s because homeopathy has so many disciples that the government is taking an interest in new regulatory policy. The FTC’s job is to protect consumers — and homeopathy and supplements are two areas in which many people aren’t getting their money’s worth. A press brief, released along with the FTC’s statement, said the clear lack of evidence backing up these products’ claims is why the agency is advocating for tighter regulation.

“For the vast majority of OTC homeopathic drugs, the policy statement notes, ‘the case for efficacy is based solely on traditional homeopathic theories and there are no valid studies using current scientific methods showing the product’s efficacy.’ As such, the marketing claims for these products are likely misleading, in violation of the FTC Act,” the brief said.

Homeopathic medicines: Risky?

Pharmacy staff making up homeopathic remedies

Pharmacy staff making up homeopathic remedies | Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The government is evidently ready to help protect your wallet. But there are still questions surrounding the safety and efficacy of many of these products, too. It’s one thing to fall short of delivering on the promises of your marketing — it’s another to actually hurt someone’s health.

There are literally hundreds of homeopathic products out there, and we simply don’t know if they’re all safe. Some have been linked to deaths, while others have been linked to organ damage. But because these products haven’t been evaluated by the FDA or other agencies, people are largely still unaware of the dangers. Still, the biggest threat most people face is simply being conned out of their money. Again, that’s not to say that some of these things don’t work. But overall, the scientific consensus says they don’t. And the burden of proof lies on the manufacturers and pushers of homeopathic products to prove that they work.

So far, there isn’t much evidence that they do.

Though the FTC is getting involved, we don’t know just how deep that involvement will be. This policy statement may be the first of a wave of new rules. Or, it may just be a shot across the industry’s bow — a warning, to keep them in check.