The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has just issued an enforcement policy statement requiring marketers of homeopathic products to ‘effectively communicate the lack of scientific evidence’ on product labels.
The move is being heralded as the first time that homeopathic products will legally require a label stating that they don’t work.
Numerous submissions to the FTC report cited the Australian 2015 comprehensive assessment of evidence by the NHMRC, which concluded there is no reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective for any health conditions.
Although the evidence overwhelmingly supports the new FTC policy, much of their report deals with legal issues, possibly pre-empting industry arguments that regulating advertising claims might be inconsistent with the US First Amendment around free speech.
The FTC policy does not constitute a new law, but it clarifies the minimum standards for homeopathic health claims, which until now have largely been left to self-regulation. Homeopathic products will now “be held to the same truth-in-advertising standards as other products claiming health benefits.”
But not all is rosy…
Before advocates of science get too excited, though, a number of caveats may limit the effect.
First, the policy doesn’t specify the exact wording, nor how prominently it should appear. Many homeopathic products already make health claims accompanied by an asterisk, pointing to a vague, buried disclaimer.
The larger corporate manufacturers, in fact, mimic pharmaceutical labels, complete with Latin ingredient names, warnings about use in pregnancy, keeping out of reach of children, and what to do for overdoses. Presumably, take another 99 pills to un-dilute the toxicity?
Second, labels are exempted if products have an ‘adequate substantiation for their efficacy claims’. This is quite sensible, but relies on a reasoned interpretation of what constitutes evidence.
If, as I would contend, no ultra-diluted substance can ever directly improve health, then the existence of ‘evidence’ actually measures something else altogether, such as chance, bias, placebo or poor study design.
Third, the FTC ruling also curiously requires health claims to state they are “based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts”. Any decent advertiser could turn that into a marketing tool: our 300-year-old treatment pre-dates men in lab coats.
A step in the right direction
The FTC should be commended for its public stance.
The FTC report cited studies where most consumers used the words ‘homeopathic’, ‘herbal’ and ‘natural’ interchangeably, and many believed that claims of efficacy on homeopathic labels were already substantiated by government.
If the current safeguards are based on ‘buyer beware’, at least now US buyers will be made slightly more aware.