Rexall’s Dubious Homeopathic Offerings

The drugstore chain, Rexall, has been shaking things up a bit lately. Chain Drug Review recently posted a lengthy piece on how Rexall “aims to reinvent the drug store”. And a recent piece in the Ottawa Citizen says that the chain’s new products aim to make life better.

But not all of the attention lavished on Rexall has been so positive. Dr Terry Polevoy, an MD who runs the website Canadian Quackery Watch, recently showed me a highly problematic ad from a Rexall flyer inserted two weeks ago into his local newspaper, the Waterloo Record:

Trusted homeopathic remedies offer an alternative way to naturally treat symptoms. Speak to your local Rexall Pharmacist for more information or visit

The problem, of course, is that homeopathy doesn’t work. Or, to be more precise, there’s no reliable evidence that it works, nor any plausible reason to think that it even could work. In commercial contexts, that’s pretty bad. And it’s worse still when the company selling the stuff is a company people rely on for competent health advice, and when that company leverages the credibility of a licensed health profession to promote bogus wares.

Rexall isn’t the only drugstore chain selling homeopathy and other ‘alternative’ healthcare products. A pharmacist friend who keeps his eyes open for such things tells me he’s seeing more and more of it. And last year, a class action lawsuit was filed against Shoppers Drug Mart and a company called Boiron, maker of a homeopathic preparation called “Oscillococcinum.” The suit alleges that Boiron breached several consumer protection statues in marketing Oscillicoccinum without evidence that it works.

But even if the suit against Shoppers fails, it’s worth remembering that what’s legal isn’t always ethical. It’s wrong to mislead consumers, even where doing so is legal. And the Rexall flyer is clearly misleading. Homeopathic remedies are incapable of treating symptoms — at least, unless the companies that make them have learned to violate the laws of physics and basic biochemistry. A homeopathic ointment may soothe skin because of the soothing properties of the non-medicinal cream on which it is based — if you take standard hand cream and add pixie dust it will now be “pixie dust cream,” but the fact that it makes your skin feel better won’t have anything to do with the power of pixies.

And then there’s the placebo effect, rooted in the well-documented fact that the power of suggestion can in some cases have real physical effects: if you believe a pill will cure your headache, then it just might. But such effects are quite hit-and-miss, and hard to predict, and in any case are predicated on a lie. Lying isn’t always illegal, or even always wrong, but when you lie in commercial contexts, both the law and society more generally takes a pretty dim view of it.

Now to be fair, I know that there are other products on drugstore shelves that raise questions about efficacy. Some studies have suggested that prescription antidepressants, for example, are no more effective than placebos. But the key is that there’s a rigorous (if imperfect) procedure for debating the effectiveness of prescription drugs. Yes, the makers of prescription drugs sometimes exaggerate the effectiveness of their products, playing fast-and-loose with the evidence. But the purveyors of ‘alternative’ therapies like homeopathy do that literally all the time.

When I asked him what he thought about this kind of marketing, Dr Polevoy said the following:

Rexall, like Shoppers Drug Mart, has one thing in mind when it comes to the marketing of homeopathic products. In my opinion, the bottom line — profits — is much more important to them than their customers, and whether or not these products work. Their customers are the ones who will ultimately pay the price, and the pharmacists have no power to warn their customers that homeopathy is bogus, and that they are wasting their money.

The commercial world is full of scams, and all too often people with something to sell have unwarranted faith in their products. Greed and ignorance are nothing new, but that that doesn’t mean they are excusable. Companies that claim not just to provide a product, but to educate and take care of consumers, ought to do better. They should do their best to sell only those products that they, and their customers, are justified in believing in.

7 comments so far

  1. cage3 on

    Reblogged this on Mother's Garden.

  2. Sum ergo cogito on

    Maybe homeopathic remedies don’t work, maybe they do. The quote you used from Dr. Polevoy is that “customers will ultimately pay the price”. What price is that? 15$ for a box of tiny pills that maybe didn’t work? OK. I saw a commercial for Celebrex this morning, a prescription drug used namely for arthritis pain. The (American) commercial mentioned for what seemed like a long time all the risks, including death, related to this medication. I imagine other presciption medications have similar warnings. Celebrex, and others, may be scientifically proven. But what price might customers of such medications potentially pay? Their life? If I had the choice between risk-of-death prescriptions and pixie dust that might alleviate my symptoms through the operation of a placebo effect, I might try the latter first, just to see. And if it didn’t work, hey, 15 bucks out the window. No big deal. But if it did, great!

    I still haven’t heard of risks related to homeopathic medication involving death.

    And I might not try just any old charlatany, pixie-dust method, just to see. I understand the slippery slope implications of not having scientific proof to back up a remedy. But homeopathy is so ancient, it has a sort of grand-fathered proof built into it.

    Maybe there are things science still doesn’t fully understand. People once believed, very adamantly, that blood didn’t circulate in the body. Now, we know otherwise.

    I haven’t personnally looked at studies “proving” the efficacy of prescription drug A or B, nor have I seen ones “proving” the non-efficacy of homeopathic medication A or B. So, I guess if some people believe homeopathy works for them, why not. I’m glad there’s a place to pick some up when needed. And, looking things up a little, I stumbled upon this UK website which cites scientific studies involving homeopathic medication (right or wrong, may each judge for him/herself):

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Oh my. There is much to correct here.

      Homeopathy doesn’t work. Period. No one has ever demonstrated that it works, and the principles upon which it is supposed to work are entirely anti-scientific. So there is just as much reason to believe in homeopathy as in a “lucky” rabbit’s foot. It’s pure superstition.

      And people certainly have died because of it. There have been several news stories about children dying because their parents insisted on treating their serious illnesses with homeopathy (or other alternative therapies) rather than real medicine.

      And — to repeat — the fact that homeopathy is old means nothing. (For the record, it certainly is not “ancient” as you imply — just a couple of centuries.) Lots of beliefs and practices are old (e.g., use of Rhino horn to cure impotence). That doesn’t bring any credibility.

      • Sum ergo cogito on

        I hadn’t heard those very upsetting stories. But I’m not sure homeopathy is to blame so much as terribly poor judgement. Any medication, even “real” would kill if a serious disease isn’t properly treated. Those parents should have properly treated their children’s diseases.
        I do agree that being old doesn’t make it good. (And you’re right, my mistake, ancient is wrong.) But there is a difference between old as in “no one does that anymore” and old as in “people still think there’s something to this”. Though, I know, thinking there’s “something to this” isn’t proof either, it doesn’t make rhino horns work any better. But isn’t the “proof in the pudding” (or rather, the “proof of the pudding in the eating”), terrible cases of poor judgement aside?
        I wonder why there is no proof that homeopathy works. Is it because it really doesn’t or because there isn’t enough funding for research in this area? Some say yoga relieves symptoms. But there’s apparently little proof of that too. Does that mean no one should do yoga to relieve certain symptoms? I think the crux of your argument is precisely there: relief of symptoms. You said in your original post that the Rexall add is misleading, and that’s what’s wrong with the whole thing. When cough syrups claim to relieve, well, coughing, but don’t, are they trying to make a dishonest buck too? (I don’t know about you, but cough syrups simply never seem to work for me…) And, if homeopathic medicine never worked for anyone, wouldn’t people just stop buying it? The market should, theoretically, take care of such dishonesty on it’s own.
        (I know you really don’t believe in homeopathy, and it must be very annoying that I’m even going on about it. I appreciate the debate though.)

  3. Sum ergo cogito on

    (its own)

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Plenty of research has been done, and no evidence has been found for any effect. And, again, the foundations for why it is supposed to work are utterly loony — purely magical thinking.

      As for individuals *experiencing* results, I’m sure some do, definitely. That doesn’t mean the result was due to the homeopathic ingredients, as I noted in the original blog entry. People believe all sorts of things. Some hockey players think they need to wear their “lucky socks.” But making money off of people’s demonstrably false beliefs is unethical.

  4. […] Rexall’s Dubious Homeopathic Offerings March 28, 2013 […]

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