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Australasian ScienceHomeopathy watered down?

In June 2012 the UK House of Commons issued a report headed "Homeopathy and the consolidation of UK medicines legislation". It was clarification of the effect that changes in legislation might have on the practice of homeopathy. It should be noted that the legislative change did not change any laws – it was a consolidation of about 200 regulations that had grown up since the Medicines Act 1968 came into force. The objective was to make the rules about all medicines clearer for all concerned and easier to interpret and administer. The consolidation has been going on since 2009 and came into effect in July 2012.

So why should homeopaths be worried. As they never tire of telling us, the Royal Family use homeopathy and there is even a homeopathic hospital on London. I think the views of the homeopathic "profession" can be summed up by the words in the report: "Some homeopathic practitioners are concerned that following the consolidation the law will be enforced". Think about that for a moment. Homeopaths aren’t worried that the law might be changed, they are worried that it might be enforced. They are therefore admitting that they are operating outside the law already. Of course any profession which already operates outside the laws of physics, chemistry and the universe is probably not going to be too bothered by the laws of man, but it is rare to see such openness in a confession.

What they are really worried about is that the regulations about amateur homeopaths might restrict their trade in magic water and sugar pills. Under the regulations, homeopathic preparations are to be treated like real medicines and can only be dispensed by a pharmacist with training in homeopathy. (I will leave for another time my thoughts about the incongruity of someone trained in the science of pharmacy also believing in magic pills.) Sales over the Internet or by telephone will be restricted, maybe even banned.

Note that one of the tenets of homeopathy is that every patient is different and every remedy has to be customised to the specific patient and condition being treated at the time. This would seem to rule out any premade "medications" sold through pharmacies, although something suitable might be found on the shelves after a discussion with the man in the short white coat. It is difficult to see how a homeopath can do a diagnosis from the delivery address and credit card number that come in through a web site shopping cart, but it’s safe to add the laws of logic to the set of laws that homeopathy violates.

In other news, it is reported that three quarters of the Dutch population purchase homeopathic preparations at least occasionally but in July the Dutch Health Minister banned manufacturers of homeopathic remedies from listing the ailments a product can cure on the label unless the remedy’s effectiveness has been scientifically proven. This goes beyond even the UK rules as it requires evidence that the stuff works. We can now expect to see shops in Amsterdam selling products labelled something like "Nigrum Ursus Stecore 30C. We can’t tell you what it does but it does something. Trust us".

Things are looking up in Australia too. The Therapeutic Goods Administration has announced a review of the way the TGA administers the regulation of complementary "medicines" (those two words just should not be together). It seems that matters might be similar here to those in the UK as the TGA is concerned about "low compliance rates". One of the problems is the public perception that anything approved for sale by the TGA has actually been tested by the TGA and shown to work. The TGA does not do any testing itself and relies on what it is told by manufacturers and distributors. The Pan Pharmaceuticals saga of 2003 was an example of failure, but that was about quality of manufacturing and was discovered almost by accident.

The TGA has two classifications for medicines and devices included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods. "Registered" products have to satisfy the regulators that they are safe, manufactured in a quality-controlled environment and that they actually have proper scientific evidence of efficacy. "Listed" products only have to meet the first two criteria – they don’t have to demonstrate any effect. Part of the proposed changes is to make this distinction more clear – if the packet has AUST R 9999 on it the thing works. If it says AUST L 9999 it might do nothing at all but it shouldn’t harm you. If there is neither then you are on your own.

So is this concerted attack on remedies with no evidence likely to dent the sales and promotion of useless pretend medicines? Somehow I doubt it, but at least the authorities are talking about it.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the September 2012 edition of Australasian Science
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