It’s a tough question

NPR covers the homeopathy issue in its usual insouciant way. It starts with a human interest story about a practitioner named Anthony Aurigemma in Bethesda (handy for NPR).

Aurigemma went to medical school and practiced as a regular doctor before switching to homeopathy more than 30 years ago. He says he got disillusioned by mainstream medicine because of the side effects caused by many drugs. “I don’t reject conventional medicine. I use it when I have to,” Aurigemma says.

Throughout his career, homeopathy has been regulated differently from mainstream medicine.

In 1988, the Food and Drug Administration decided not to require homeopathic remedies to go through the same drug-approval process as standard medical treatments. Now the FDA isrevisiting that decision. It will hold two days of hearings this week to decide whether homeopathic remedies should have to be proven safe and effective.



It will hold two days of hearings this week to decide whether homeopathic remedies should have to be proven safe and effective.

It will hold two days of hearings this week to decide whether homeopathic remedies should have to be proven safe and effective.

Let’s see…should they?

Naaaaaaaaaaaah. So they’re dangerous and useless – so what?! What’s the harm?

Remember that time I read something about homeopathic asthma “medication” and went ballistic? Remember I went to the local chain drugstore to see if they carried it and sure enough they did, with the actual asthma medication? That’s the harm. It’s cheaper than the real stuff. A naïve shopper could buy the homeopathic stuff not realizing it’s not real medication. Asthma can kill you, quickly.

That’s what’s the harm.

So yes, FDA, since homeopathic remedies claim to be medically effective, yes of course they should have to be proven safe and effective.

Homeopathic medicine has long been controversial. It’s based on an idea known as “like cures like,” which means if you give somebody a dose of a substance — such as a plant or a mineral — that can cause the symptoms of their illness, it can, in theory, cure that illness if the substance has been diluted so much that it’s essentially no longer in the dose.

“We believe that there is a memory left in the solution. You might call it a memory. You might call it energy,” Aurigemma says. “Each substance in nature has a certain set of characteristics. And when a patient comes who matches the physical, mental and emotional symptoms that a remedy produces — that medicine may heal the person’s problem.”

And then he spun around three times and disappeared, leaving behind only a frog in a football jersey.

“Homeopathy is an excellent example of the purest form of pseudoscience,” saysSteven Novella, a neurologist at Yale and executive editor of the website Science-Based Medicine. “These are principles that are not based upon science.”

Novella thinks consumers are wasting their money on homeopathic remedies. The cost of such treatments vary, with some over-the-counter products costing less than $10.

Some of the costs, such as visits to doctors and the therapies they prescribe, may be covered by insurance. But Novella says with so many people using homeopathic remedies, the costs add up.

Plus, it’s money for nothing. $9 for a pretend pizza may be not much money, but on the other hand a pretend pizza is worth zero.

Plus there’s the whole killing you thing.

There’s also some concern that homeopathic remedies could be dangerous if they’re contaminated or not completely diluted, or even if they simply don’t work.

I don’t know what that “even” is doing there. Yes of course medicine that doesn’t work could be dangerous!

Somebody who’s having an acute asthma attack, for example, who takes a homeopathic asthma remedy, “may very well die of their acute asthma attack because they were relying on a completely inert and ineffective treatment,” Novella says.

Precisely. Yet there it is sitting on the shelf at the big chain drugstore, mixed in with the real medicine! Not marked “DOES NOT WORK”.

For years, critics like Novella have been asking the FDA to regulate homeopathy more aggressively. The FDA’s decision to revisit the issue now was motivated by several factors, including the growing popularity of homeopathic remedies and the length of time that has passed since the agency last considered the issue.

What’s the thinking here? That it’s part of our sacred freedom to let people sell water labeled medicine?

The FDA’s decision to examine the issue is making homeopathic practitioners like Aurigemma and their patients nervous. “It would be a terrible loss to this country if they were to do something drastic,” he says.

Yeah, quack medicine is what makes this world a better place.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    Some years ago, Gerber baby foods got in trouble for labeling sugar water as organic apple juice. BIG trouble.


  2. quentinlong says

    There’s also some concern that homeopathic remedies could be dangerous if they’re contaminated or not completely diluted, or even if they simply don’t work.

    I don’t know what that “even” is doing there. Yes of course medicine that doesn’t work could be dangerous!

    The “even” is there because some some of the ‘remedies” homeopaths “prescribe” to their “patients” are, in fact, dangerously toxic. Just for grins, you might want to browse the website of the National Center for Homeopathy, and use the website’s search function to see what sort of poisons homeopaths push as “remedies”; I found arsenic and radium.

    Now, the toxic qualities of a homeopathic “remedy” don’t matter a whole lot when the stuff gets diluted down to a proper homoepathic “concentration”, because in all probability, the resulting “medicine” contains 0 (zero) molecules of the actual “remedy”. But if the “remedy” was not properly diluted…

  3. quixote says

    The dilution aspect was not originally part of homeopathy. The principle of “like cures like” means all (? there might be some exceptions I’ve forgotten) their medicines are toxic to some degree, because only toxic substances will produce symptoms. That is then the group of symptoms that given substance is supposed to cure.

    There are those of us who think, tongue-in-cheekishly, that dilution, ahem, potentiation, became an essential element of the canon because of the toxicity of the pharmacopoeia.

    Charging more than the cost of materials plus a small markup is as unethical for homeopathy as it is for any medicine. And people with curable conditions should be getting them cured, while those with life-threatening ones should be getting the help they need to minimize their risk. In all cases. That doesn’t apply only to homeopathy. So those are both real problems with the “snake oil” aspect of stuff for sale in drugstores.

    But, and this is a big but and the reason why it makes sense to have a tolerant attitude to ethical homeopathy, the stuff really is harmless in diluted form and really does bring some people comfort at very low cost. The reason for the latter is most likely the placebo effect which is increasingly recognized as a very signficant factor in medicine. (eg Recent work on what they’re calling the placebome. Popular synopsis.) As much as 30% of the effect of some *clinically tested* drugs may be placebo effect.

    There are plenty of wearing, chronic, minor conditions that clinical medicine really doesn’t have any simple answers for. If some water can make a significant minority feel better without the side effects of more “effective” drugs, I think it is misplaced to sneer at them. The FDA should certainly check for safety. It should give up on the efficacy thing because we don’t actually always know what is efficacious for a given individual.

    The correct approach, to my way of thinking, is the one the Germans have (used to have?). Homeopathic medicines are cheap, but dispensed in a pharmacy, where the pharmacist is available to check on the customers who need other kinds of medical help. Given how overworked everyone is in the US, that probably wouldn’t work here, but it’s the right idea.

    (Hm. Looking that over, sorry for the book length comment!)

  4. says

    At the risk of dragging in unrelated debates, your comment—far from being book-length—is not even an opening paragraph, by Nugent standards.

  5. johnthedrunkard says

    Well this refers back the the post on psychiatry:
    ‘…genuinely helpful approaches should be based in reality and not pseudoscience.’

    Without genuine scientific investigation, each homeopath THINKS they are using an ‘approach’ based in reality.

    The 1938 Food and Drug law was sponsored through Congress BY A HOMEOPATH. So naturally, all sorts of special exemptions were built in. At the time there were less than 300 Homeopathic Drs in the US. It is the ‘special’ exemptions from regulation that have made homeopathy a big business.

    Commercial ‘homeopathic’ products may contain just about anything. Including prescription drugs and fillers that are overtly dangerous.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    Blanche Quizno @#1
    I think you are referring to the Beech-Nut baby food company incident in 1987. Not Gerbers.

  7. Blanche Quizno says

    You’re right. My bad. Funny that a food item’s mislabeling is so much bigger a deal than a medications’ mislabeling…

  8. latveriandiplomat says

    Dilution was part of Hahnemann’s method, and he coined the term “homeopathy”.

    Even if the placebo effect was reliable enough to use for treatment, it is unethical for health care providers to lie to their patients, for obvious reasons.

    Money spent on homeopathic “medicine” is wasted, and takes money from suffering and desperate people and gives it to frauds. Sounds like something that should be illegal.

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