Loblaws selling homeopathy is junk science and bad corporate ethics

Homeopathy has the potential to stimulate the body’s own healing powers. Ask us to help you select a remedy.

Photo: Chris MacDonald

This post has been updated with comment from Loblaws.


Imagine you walked into your local bank, and saw a sign that read:

“Lottery tickets have the potential to ensure a comfortable retirement. Ask us to help you select the lottery that’s right for you!”

You would, I am sure, be shocked. Anyone with the slightest bit of financial common sense knows that lotteries are a losing proposition. For every one person who (temporarily, at least) gets rich, there must necessarily be thousands or millions more who lose money. Lottery tickets are a bad bet, and to advise someone to buy lottery tickets as an investment strategy would be fraudulently bad investment advice.

But worse still would be a sign that read:

Ponzi schemes have the potential to ensure a comfortable retirement. Ask us to help you select the Ponzi scheme that’s right for you!”

This, of course, would be even worse advice. After all, lotteries sometimes (if rarely) pay off. Ponzi schemes never do. They always collapse, eventually. They make investors feel good, in the short run, but they are utterly incapable of securing anyone’s long-term future. So advising people to buy into a Ponzi scheme would be the height of professional irresponsibility for a financial institution. Only a company seeking to profit from gullibility—to prey upon the public’s lack of financial sophistication—would even think of such slimy advice.
So what about healthcare? Shouldn’t the same standards apply? Wouldn’t it be shocking if a company promoted a healthcare product that had not just a slim chance of working, but literally no chance at all?

Here’s a sign that greeted me in the back corner of my local Loblaws supermarket:

“Homeopathy has the potential to stimulate the body’s own healing powers. Ask us to help you select a remedy.”

The problem here is of course that homeopathy doesn’t work. It cannot work, as a matter of simple biology, and it’s been thoroughly tested and proven not to work. Scientific consensus is clear and unambiguous on this. For some symptoms, homeopathy can provide a short-lived placebo effect. But that’s very limited, and it’s not the claim being made when homeopathy is sold. A company the size of Loblaw Cos. Ltd. has no excuse for not knowing this.

Of course, some people claim that homeopathy works for them. This can readily be explained by reference to any of a number of perceptual failings and cognitive biases. The short version is that personal perceptions and recollections are not reliable: medicine needs to be rigorously tested using blinded trials. After all, many of us know someone—a former neighbour or second cousin once removed—who scored big on the lottery. That doesn’t mean lotteries are a reliable investment strategy.

Presumably Loblaws thinks they can get away with this because of the weasel words they use: words like “potential” presumably mean they’re dodging making any specific claim about cause and effect. That may keep them on the right side of the law. But it still makes the company’s behaviour deeply unethical. If by “potential” they merely mean “it’s not logically impossible,” then the claim about homeopathy may be true. But if they mean that stimulating the body’s own healing powers realistically could happen, then it’s false.

If Loblaws isn’t selling something that works, are they at least selling hope? Perhaps. And hope is a wonderful thing. But many desperate people also buy lottery tickets as a matter of hope, in a desperate attempt to get themselves out of poverty. In both cases, what is being sold is at best false hope, and there’s no honour in selling that.

Homeopathy is the healthcare equivalent of a Ponzi scheme. Loblaws—and any other retail outlet that sells it—should be ashamed.

 


Update:
The publication of the commentary above (here and on Canadian Business) created a minor firestorm on social media. Within 24 hours this commentary became Canadian Business’s most commented-upon piece for the year. About 24 hours after the commentary appeared, Loblaws responded via twitter, as follows:

loblaws1

loblaws2

Interestingly, the company makes no effort to defend homeopathy itself, or to justify the enthusiastic claim made by the sign shown and quoted above.
-CM

10 comments so far

  1. Karen Wehrstein on

    “No science behind homeopathy” is a frequently-repeated meme that is untrue. Please educate yourself, Chris.

    Scientists first discovered nanoparticles of the original substances in homeopathy in 2010. That experiment has since been replicated independently several times. Google “Chikramane homeopathy” for the 2010 paper. Also “Iris Bell” for a theoretical model on how it works. I am in personal contact with this MD/PhD and they’re closing in on a definitive answer.

    There is now an entire database of studies about homeopathy as a one-stop shop for RCTs, etc. – see here: http://www.carstens-stiftung.de/core-hom/login.php.

    As a businessman you can surely recognize that long-term customer loyalty is a good indicator of a product’s or service’s effectiveness. The homeopathic method was invented more than 200 years ago; if it were useless it would have disappeared with other medical innovations of the time, especially considering how strong and well-funded its opposition has been all that time. Instead it shows good growth globally, is integrated into the health care systems of multiple countries and is used by hundreds of millions worldwide. See here – http://www.homeocentre.ca/homeopathy-worldwide/ .

    It’s not that homeopathy defies science; it’s that science is only just catching up.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      I’m not a businessman (what makes you think that?), and NO, long-term customer loyalty is not an indicator of effectiveness. There are dozens of documented perceptual and cognitive biases that can explain why customers *think* a product has helped them, even when it has not.

      If the nano-particles stuff were convincing, then mainstream physicists and biologists would be convinced, which they most emphatically are not.

      Chris.

  2. Laurie Zrudlo on

    I’m not sure what qualifies the writer to make any statement about the science behind anything, let alone in a field with as many conflicting points of view. Is Mr. MacDonald aware that thousands of pharmacies, let alone groceries stores sell homeopathy? Is he aware that MDs all over Europe routinely recommend homeopathy to their patients? Does he claim to know more about which medicines do or do not work than those thousands of doctors? Shameful, indeed!

    • Chris MacDonald on

      What qualifies me? What qualifies me is that I’ve consulted the broad scientific consensus, which is that homeopathy is a) physically impossible and b) unable to be shown to work in high-quality studies.

      As for arguments like yours, I’ve used my critical thinking skills. If people have positive experiences with it, then someone should be able to gather evidence, rather than just telling stories about it. The fact that something is popular does not imply that it works. Many superstitions, after all, are popular.

      • Laurie Zrudlo on

        I’m afraid consulting a couple of articles doesn’t exactly qualify you. You need some examining of your premises. People well-versed in scientific methodology and and practice know that carrying out thorough studies with large numbers of subjects costs a lot of money. Those who fund such studies don’t do so out of the goodness of their hearts, there’s an expensive, marketable product at the end of the process. This being said, small homeopathic labs are doing their best to provide such proof to the public. Two studies for the flu product you were probably talking about:

        1. Papp R, Schuback G, Beck E, et al. Oscillococcinum in patients with influenza-like syndromes: a placebo-controlled, double-blind evaluation. Br Homeopath J. 1998;87:69-76.
        2. Ferley JP, Zmirou D, D’Adhemar D, Balducci F. A controlled evaluation of a homeopathic preparation in the treatment of influenza-like syndromes. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 1989;27:329-335

        In the meantime, do you know how many people had to have severe adverse reactions before they forced drug companies to remove the claim that their cold and flu medecines were safe for children? I didn’t think so.

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    Sorry, but *citing* a couple of articles doesn’t exactly qualify YOU, either. (And — lol — the 2 you cite are rather old, eh?) The broad consensus of the ENTIRE scientific community is what I’m looking at. Meta-analyses, and so on. Homeopaths have had over 150 years to provide more than a couple of articles. And the underlying “theory” is pure voodoo. That’s why pharmacists who work at Loblaws are *embarrassed* by the company they work for.

  4. Chris MacDonald on

    Dear homeopaths: Listen, I realize it’s very hard to have someone tell you that something you’ve devoted your life to is bunk. But answer me this question: how SHOULD we, the public, differentiate your stuff from stuff that is fraudulent? How can we tell? You know full well that anecdotes won’t suffice. Fraudsters use those, too. So, in all sincerity, explain how the public can tell that YOUR anecdotes are more reliable than the anecdotes that buoy any number of superstitions?

  5. […] Loblaws selling homeopathy is junk science and bad corporate ethics December 15, 2015 […]

  6. Belle on

    1) If homeopathy is physically impossible, then so are immunizations. I’m not saying homeopathy is proven. I’m saying there’s a flaw in your argument. 2) Just because something is controversial doesn’t mean selling it is unethical. Just because homeopathy is controversial doesn’t mean a pharmacy is unethical for offering it. Businesses must act ethically – fully disclose what they are selling, price it fairly, and not engage in other unethical acts that coerce consumers into buying products that are proven bad for them and/or their circumstances. But offering homeopathy to consumers who have already made up their minds that they want them, in the absence of any evidence that homeopathy will harm them and in the absence of any coercion or lying in the sales process, does not by itself make the seller unethical.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      1) No. The underlying physical mechanism of immunization is well understood, and accords well with the rest of established medicine, chemistry, and physics. Not so for homeopathy.

      2) I never said that being controversial made it unethical. I said it’s unethical because we know it doesn’t work — just like a Ponzi scheme doesn’t work as an investment plan. The fact that I *really really* want into your Ponzi scheme doesn’t magically make it ethical to sell it to me.


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