FTC steps in where FDA fears to tread - on homeopathy

Here's a label that the FDA should require.
The federal government is probably wincing right now from the after-effects of the election, but one agency deserves a robust round of applause: the Federal Trade Commission. This week, the FTC announced, in a strongly-worded report on homeopathic advertising, that homeopathic drugs should "be held to the same truth-in-advertising standards as other products claiming health benefits."

The FTC can't prevent homeopathic marketers from selling their products; only the FDA could do that. But starting very soon, they will require that homeopathic products include statements that:
  • There is no scientific evidence backing homeopathic health claims
  • Homeopathic claims are based only on theories from the 1700s that are not accepted by modern medical experts.
Admittedly, this might not effect sales very much. Over at Slate, Alan Levinovitz argues that these claims might even backfire, because some users of homeopathic drugs don't trust modern medicine, or because they might belief that hey, if it's been around that long, it must work. But old medicine is not good medicine. (And in the FTC's defense, they also recommended that the FDA "subject homeopathic drugs to the same regulatory requirements as other drug products," but they can't force the FDA to act.)

But wait: does this mean homeopathic drug makers didn't have to be truthful in the past? Well, yes. As the FTC report explains, in 1988 the FDA–the agency in charge of regulating drugs in the U.S–basically struck a deal where they agreed that homeopaths could be self-regulating, as long as they included a disclaimer that their claims haven't been evaluated by the FDA. To put this more bluntly: the FDA's agreement with homeopaths (you can read it here) is basically a license to lie.*

For example, the widely-sold homeopathic product Oscillococcinum, which is nothing more than a sugar pill, says on its packaging that it "Temporarily relieves flu-like symptoms such as body aches, headache, fever, chills and fatigue."

Helpful hint to potential victims customers: Oscilloco doesn't do anything of the sort. Oscilloco escapes having to prove their claims by a tiny asterisk, which (after much digging through the website) is attached to a disclaimer that '*these “Uses” have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.' Interesting how they place the word "uses" in quotation marks.

Homeopathy is the most obviously fake alternative medicine you're likely to see in your local pharmacy. This may seem like a pretty strong statement, but look at what homeopathy claims:
  • That infinite dilutions of a substance, to the point where not a single molecule remains, have a medical benefit
  • That water "remembers" the substances that were in it in the past
  • That a substance that causes a symptom will, when diluted, cure that same symptom. Thus (for example) poison ivy can cure itching.
These claims violate basic principles of physics, chemistry, and biology. The idea that water remembers what was in it is so confused that it's not even wrong–and it also implies that every sip of water you take "remembers" virtually every substance on the planet, although homeopaths appear not to recognize this. Yet homeopathic "drugs" are a multi-billion dollar business today; the FDA estimated that consumers spent $2.9 billion on homeopathic remedies in 2007, the last year for which they reported numbers.

The FDA held a public hearing last March, and the FTC held their public workshop in September. They solicited and received over 500 comments, both pro and con. Most of the pro-homeopathy comments boil down to "it worked for me" or "people have been using this stuff for years"; in other words, anecdotes and testimonials. The con-homeopathy comments described scientific studies showing that homeopathy simply doesn't work. These include a thorough review conducted by the Australian government last year, which concluded:
"There are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective."
Despite Alan Levinovitz's concerns that warning labels won't help, I'm with the FTC here. If the FDA won't (or can't) stop homeopaths from selling their modern snake oil, at least we can slap labels on them saying they don't work. If consumers want to buy a product that the government says doesn't work, well, it's their money.

*Well, they're not really lying if they include a disclaimer, are they? So I'm not really calling them liars.

Another dietary supplement to avoid: calcium

Despite the claims on the package, these
pills don't give you strong bones.
Dietary supplements and vitamins are a multi-billion dollar business, driven by heavy advertising and constant promises that supplements will somehow make you healthier. For most people, vitamins and other dietary supplements are useless, and when taken in large quantities they can even be harmful. (See my article, "The Top Six Vitamins You Should Not Take" for specifics.)

Now we can add another supplement to the list of those that you shouldn't take: calcium. Calcium supplements are often sold on the promise that they strengthen your bones or prevent osteoporosis. Given that calcium is a major component of our bones, it seems sensible to assume that extra calcium might help strengthen them.

What seems sensible, though, doesn't always turn out to be true. A large new study published recently in the Journal of the American Heart Association shows that taking supplemental calcium leads to an increased risk of heart disease, by increasing the calcification of your arteries. That's a bad outcome.

The new study, led by John J.B. Anderson of UNC Chapel Hill and Erin Michos at Johns Hopkins University, looked at changes in coronary artery calcification over a 10-year period in 2,742 adults. Calcification of the arteries is strongly associated with heart attacks and other life-threatening events; basically, a calcified artery is a dangerously unhealthy artery.

The study found some surprising results that seem at first to be contradictory: people who simply consumed the most calcium through their diet had a slightly lower risk of calcification of the arteries - about 27% lower than the group with the lowest amount of dietary calcium. However, people who took calcium supplements had a 22% higher risk of calcification.

Why are calcium supplements harmful when dietary calcium seems healthful? The authors explained:
"Little of the additional calcium provided by calcium supplements, however, is incorporated in bone by adults."
In other words, if you just take a pill of concentrated calcium, your body can't handle it, and some of it seems to end up in the linings of your arteries, where it makes them rigid and contributes to cardiovascular disease. So rather than strengthening your bones, supplemental calcium might "strengthen" your arteries, but in a bad way. As the study explains:
"Rather than promoting bone health, excess calcium from the diet and supplements is postulated to accrue in vascular tissues." 
You don't want more calcium in your arteries. That's too bad for supplement makers, whose claims that calcium supplements "promote healthy bones" (as claimed, for example, by Nature's Way "bone formula" calcium pills) are just not supported by science. You can, though, get plenty of calcium by eating these calcium-rich foods:

  1. Cheese
  2. Yogurt
  3. Milk
  4. Sardines
  5. Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, broccoli rabe, and bok choy

So if you're concerned about osteoporosis or just general bone health, skip the pills, save your money–and protect your heart–by eating a calcium-rich diet instead.