IT’S amazing what plain old water can do if you put enough marketing spin around it.
Yes, I’m talking about homeopathy again, thanks to a recent decision by the Therapeutic Products Advertising Complaints Resolution Panel.
The panel was responding to a complaint led by the indefatigable Dr Ken Harvey about ads for the Nature’s Way Kids Smart range of four so-called natural medicines “based on the healing principles of homeopathy, a natural and therapeutic system of medicine that stretches back over 200 years”.
The four products were Cold and Flu, Pain and Fever, Runny Nose and Hay Fever, and Calm (“for nervous, anxious, moody and irritable babies and children”).
Among claims made for the various products were: “effective against nasal congestion, coughs, fever, sore throat and body aches and pain”, “for the temporary relief of pain and mild fever in infants and children” and “relieves sneezing, itchy and watery eyes & sinus congestion associated with hayfever and sinusitis”.
Impressive outcomes, given that homeopathic products — as I’ve written before — are generally so diluted they may not contain a single molecule of the supposed active ingredient.
Homeopaths rely on theories about water retaining a “memory” of the substance to bolster their claim that the more dilute the preparation the more powerful it is.
This has prompted a number of wits to ask why the water wouldn’t also remember all the other things it has encountered over the course of its existence, which could cause rather a lot of confusion when you think about it.
After all, it’s been suggested every glass of water we drink might contain at least one molecule that at some point passed through the bladder of Oliver Cromwell. Imagine what the memory of that might do to us.
The homeopaths would say it’s a question of how you do the diluting — there’s a whole lot of shaking going on, apparently — but the fact remains they’ve never been able to prove their claims in a properly conducted trial (as outlined in an MJA round-up of Cochrane reviews on the subject).
In this latest case, the Complaints Resolution Panel has requested the supplier of the Kids Smart products, Pharmacare Laboratories, to publish a prominent retraction on the first page of its website including the panel’s finding that the claims made for the products were unlawful, misleading and unverified and that they “abused the trust and exploited the lack of knowledge of consumers”.
It says a similar correction notice should be placed on the websites of five online retailers — four of them pharmacies — who had advertised the products.
The products are no longer being advertised on any of these respondents’ websites (though you can still find them being promoted elsewhere online), but the corrections had yet to appear at the time of writing.
There’s still time for that to happen, but ultimately the Complaints Resolution Panel is a toothless tiger. It can “request” all it likes but it doesn’t have any muscle to back that up.
This is not just a question of protecting consumers from wasting their money on non-remedies — though that’s an issue.
More importantly, as Dr Harvey has previously pointed out, the products could pose a serious health risk if they led to children not receiving proper medical treatment, as some of the symptoms described could indicate serious disease such as bacterial meningitis.
Perhaps the biggest question is how trained pharmacists can be prepared to lend their authority to such quackery and how their professional bodies can tolerate it.
One of the online pharmacies censured by the panel, Pharmacy Direct, says on its website: “Owned and operated by pharmacists, you can be sure of uncompromising convenience backed by advice you can trust”.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.