The United States’ largest retailer has been sued for medical fraud. In a lawsuit filed in the District of Columbia, the Center for Inquiry (CFI) alleges that Walmart is “committing wide-scale consumer fraud and endangering the health of its customers through its sale and marketing of homeopathic medicines.” This is similar to a 2018 suit that the same nonprofit brought against CVS, the largest drug retailer in the United States.
Nick Little, CFI’s Vice President and General Counsel, contends that, “Walmart sells homeopathics right alongside real medicines, in the same sections in its stores, under the same signs. Searches on its website for cold and flu remedies or teething products for infants yield pages full of homeopathic junk products. It’s an incredible betrayal of customers’ trust and an abuse of Walmart’s titanic retail power.”
A Walmart spokesman responded by saying, “We want to be the most trusted retailer, and we look to our suppliers to provide products that meet all applicable laws, including labeling laws. Our Equate private label homeopathic products are designed to include information directly stating that the claims are not based on accepted medical evidence and have not been evaluated by the FDA. We take allegations like these seriously and will respond as appropriate with the court.”
Homeopathic medicine (or homeopathy) is a medical system that uses plants, animals or minerals that are administered as oils, creams, tablets or gels as treatment – with the premise that the body can cure itself. Those who practice homeopathy believe that natural substances stimulate natural healing. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, an estimated 5 million adults and 1 million children used homeopathic products in the past year. Most homeopathic products are self-administered and self-prescribed for ailments such as the common cold, migraines, allergies, and pain.
Alternative remedies have long been contentious as an alternative to evidence-based medication. And in this case, CFI asserts that Walmart knowingly presented homeopathy like stress relief aids and cold and flu remedies as equal alternatives, both in store and online to customers. CFI is not seeking to have products removed from shelves, but seeking to ensure that Walmart labels its products in an honest manner for consumers.
According to Mr. Little, “Walmart can’t claim it doesn’t know that homeopathy is snake oil, because it runs its own enormous pharmacy business and make its own homeopathic products. So whether it’s a scientifically proven remedy like aspirin or flatly denounced junk like homeopathic teething caplets for babies, Walmart sells all of it under its in-house ‘Equate’ branding. It’s all the same to Walmart.”
While the NIH has determined that there is little evidence to support that homeopathy may be an effective treatment for any mental or physical health problems, the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and FTC (Federal Trade Commission) have not taken major steps to curtail the industry. Although, as recently as May 14, 2019 the FDA issued warnings to five manufacturers of homeopathic products for putting “consumers at risk with significant violations of manufacturing quality standards.” But most experts contend these actions are merely the agencies making an appearance at curtailing the products – as most homeopathic and nutraceutical products are never reviewed for safety or efficacy by government agencies.
Despite CFI’s calls for tighter regulation of homeopathic products, very little has been done by federal agencies to date. However, the nonprofit has had influence in recent years as the FTC declared that marketing of homeopathic products for specific diseases and symptoms is only permissible if consumers are made explicitly aware, “that 1) there is no scientific evidence that the product works, and 2) the product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.” The FTC asserted that over-the-counter homeopathic drugs would be held to the same standard as those for evidence-based products making similar claims. It also stated (without a real enforcement mechanism) that homeopathic companies must have competent and reliable scientific evidence to make health-related claims.
In December 2017, the FDA also proposed a new “risk-based” enforcement approach to homeopathic products. The goal was to create structures for more careful scrutiny of products that posed a great risk to vulnerable populations.
But how we got here is complicated. While consumers do lose money on “treatments” that are not proven to work and the possibility of prolonging and worsening health conditions is great, the “snake oils” of the world have always existed. But since homeopathy grew in popularity in Germany 200 years ago, it has been rooted in two primary theories:
- The notion that like cures like. What this means is that an ailment can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people
- The notion that the lower the dose of medication, the greater the effectiveness. This leads to many homeopathic products being diluted by water or other means
And these concepts have forever been appealing to humans. That nature can cure. And because these products are deeply entrenched in our history, and they carry (minimal) labeling that they are not approved by the FDA, the likelihood of CFI winning its lawsuit slim. But the filing itself has brought attention to the topic, which is also important.