Last month, the Food and Drug Administration released a new set of guidelines signaling an impending crackdown on homeopathic medicines.
Did you hear that? That was the sound of every naturopathic physician in Brooklyn clutching his pearl powders.
The FDA already regulates homeopathic remedies … kind of. Thanks to a policy introduced in 1988, most homeopathic drugs aren’t subjected to the same rigorous approval process conventional drugs are. So they don’t need to prove their efficacy but they can still make the misleading claim that they are “regulated by the FDA.” Until recently, they didn’t have to specify that they hadn’t actually been reviewed or approved by the FDA. As long as homeopathic medicine is not marketed as a cure for serious illnesses like cancer, it can be sold over the counter with close to zero regulation.
In recent years, homeopathy has become a catch-all term for any natural medical alternative. Treatments ranging from zinc to crushed whole bees fall under the homeopathy umbrella. Some of these natural substances are potentially harmful, but are administered in such small doses that they are safe to consume. The underlying “science” is that a substance that causes the same symptoms as the disease you’re suffering from can be used to treat it. The problem? Homeopathy doesn’t work.
For something with almost no backing in the scientific community, homeopathy has become incredibly popular. What was once a fringe practice has ballooned into a $3 billion industry in America. Products like Zicam and Cold-EEZE have become mainstream. Despite its shady history of lying about its scientific merits, Airborne can be found on most drug store shelves in America. But the scary part is, homeopathic remedies aren’t just used to treat colds and other minor health issues; There are products advertised as treatments for asthma and dementia.
In a press release, FDA chief Scott Gottlieb laid out the dangers of homeopathic treatments: “In many cases, people may be placing their trust and money in therapies that may bring little to no benefit in combating serious ailments, or worse — that may cause significant and even irreparable harm because the products are poorly manufactured, or contain active ingredients that aren’t adequately tested or disclosed to patients.”
An estimated 5 million Americans used homeopathic medicines in 2012, one million of which were children — sometimes with tragic results. Take the Hyland’s Teething Tablet case, for example. Advertised as a homeopathic remedy for teething pains, Hyland’s Teething Tablets may have been responsible for the death of eight children after some tablets were found to contain toxic levels of the poisonous plant belladonna. The product is no longer distributed in the United States, but Hyland’s insists that, though it voluntarily discontinued the tablets, it still believes its teething products are “safe for use.”
If you’re a proponent of taking zinc to get over a cold or mixing Airborne in your water, fear not. The FDA isn’t going to take away those products. Instead, you can expect a crackdown on dangerous ingredients (like belladonna) that can be fatal in higher doses, products marketed toward children, and supposed treatments for serious medical conditions.
Homeopathy has been deeply entrenched in American healthcare for hundreds of years, but that is not reason enough to allow it to expand unchecked. As Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said: “I think that it’s about time that these snake oil salesmen were held accountable for what they’re selling.”
So, what have we learned? Homeopathic medicines are probably snake oil. But, on the other hand, could 5 million Americans really be wrong? Maybe I need to start stocking up now before it’s too late.
If anyone has a crushed whole bees connection, please @ me.