Hi, everyone. It’s me, your point of inquiry co-host, Kavin Senapathy. I hope you’re all enjoying your summers. And if you have kids on break, I’m going to send you my solidarity, although I hope you’re having fun.
Speaking of kids, how many of you have gone to the store to buy medicine to help your little one feel better when they’re sick?
Today on point of inquiry, I discussed with CFI legal director Nicholas Little about the lawsuit brought by CFI against a couple of the biggest retailers of what he calls the Scientology of alternative medicine.
Hi, everyone. It’s me. Your point of inquiry host Kavin Senapathy. It’s awesome to be here today with the Center for Inquiry’s own. Nick Little, who has served as a CFI, is legal director and general counsel since 2013. Thanks so much for joining me, Nick. Well, thank you for having me. So while I would love to pick your brain about a whole raft of topics, Nick is with us today to talk about the lawsuit that the Center for Inquiry filed last month against Wal-Mart. The suit, which was filed in Washington, D.C., states that the defendant, Wal-Mart, uses marketing, labeling and product placement to falsely present homeopathic products as equivalent alternatives to science based medicines and to represent to homeopathic products as effective treatments for specific diseases and symptoms, end quote. So before we get into the details, what’s the basic concept behind homeopathy and why isn’t it effective?
It relies on two essential principles or or claims to rely on two essential principles. These are developed in the 18th century in Germany at a time when the understanding of medicine really wasn’t blocked. The understanding of medicine is today.
So the first of the principles, which is actually, shockingly enough, the one that sounds more sensible of the two, is the notion that like cures, like the idea of homeopathy, as if something causes a symptom, the same thing can be used to to treat that symptom, which sounds on the surface like it might have some sort of sense to it. But when you get down to it, the things that you have found cause sometimes really have no basis in reality on that. And that’s an example. I’ll come back to time and time again, because it’s one of the best selling homeopathic products in the world. I’ll sell a kochan, which is a treatment for flu and flu symptoms. And the item that they claim causes these symptoms and so can be used to treat it is the heart and liver of a particular type of doc, the Muscovy duck. So it’s clearly even that the more sensible of the two theories that it’s based on comes from a a a priest scientific time, a time when we didn’t understand diseases at all. But that’s going to come across as incredibly sensible. When I talk about the second notion that Hung Up is based on and that notion is that it’s called the law of the infinitesimal doses, which is the idea that the more you dilute this so-called active ingredient, the more powerful it gets. So one level of dilution is taking one part of the ingredient to ten pots of water, all ten pots of lactose or whatever and not base you are using and mixing it in a pound. You want one to ten. And then in between each dilution, you are meant to suck costs the product, which is taking it and striking it against an elastic surface. And in particular they recommend a leather bound book. I did not know she then diluted it hits you, then diluted it again.
OK, a leather bound began at a leather bound book is what what is recommended in this.
So you go on diluting and you dilute it down and you dilute it down. And you don’t need to have an advanced degree in math to realize that there comes a point pretty soon that there’s absolutely nothing of the original ingredient left. And the example I used before also Occoquan. Is diluted like that 200 times. So it is one atom of pot and liver, it must be dark in it, 10 to the power of 400 atoms of water. So there’s there’s absolutely no trace of this element that’ll help us possibly do anything. And finally, when little things like Avogadro’s Compston were discovered, the homeopaths had to turn around and say, well, there’s a way in which this works. And this is why we’re getting into the fantasy world. This works because water has a memory. Water remembers what was dilute, what was dissolved into it. Even at a point that there was not a single molecule of that substance left.
Not just there isn’t a single molecule that physically cannot be a molecule of that substance left. So the way I always describe it is, you know, there’s lots of different types of alternative medicine that range from bad to worse. I describe homeopathy as the scientology of alternative medicine. It’s the real, real bottom of the barrel. It just makes it I it’s harsh. But you know what? It’s not just that these products don’t work. They actually cannot work under any understanding of science that we have.
Right. You know, they can’t. They can’t work. And I know the dilutions you are talking about are referred to on the labels in a way that to me doesn’t doesn’t reveal these concepts that you described. But Wal-Mart said in response to the suit that, quote, there equate private label. Homeopathic products are designed to include information directly stating that the claims are not based on accepted medical evidence and have not been evaluated by the FDA. So what do you say to folks or to opponents of this effort by CFI who say that, hey, it’s already clear on the label that homeopathy doesn’t work? So what’s the point here of the lawsuit?
You say you have kids. Kevin, I have to catch every parent in the situation that your kid has an air strike. Your kid has a sore throat. You’ve had a yoke. You’ve had to leave work early to pick up your kid from daycare and your kids crying. And all you want to do is get home and make your kid feel better. So you walk in to Wal-Mart and you walk into CBS, you go to the pharmacy section.
You look up there to see how badly you’re tired. I’m thinking, yeah, yeah.
The kid is screaming in your ear if you have kids like mine. Yes. So you look up at the ceiling and there’s this big sign that says children’s cough remedies, children’s cough. So you walk down there and that all of these bottles on there and there’s bottles you put on those bottles, you have it and you grab it off the shelf and you walk and you pay for it.
You arm not the doctor. You are relying on Wal-Mart. You are relying on CBS and they tell you to rely on them.
You are relying on them to put product under a sign that says children’s cough medicine that actually treat coughs in children. If you’re shopping for yourself and you have, you know, a cold. You have the flu. There’s a sign that says cold and flu. I don’t think it’s a radical statement to say that by putting something under a sign that says cold and flu, the stall. Be it warm up, it’s CBS is making an affirmative representation that that product treats those symptoms.
I personally, back when my kids were a few years younger.
I think I did purchase a homeopathic remedy, and I know other people who consider themselves critical thinkers, even scientists who just didn’t know better, because I think I mean, I of course, I think that this is one of the most profound and important initiatives of CFI right now.
Thank you. Yes. You’re quite welcome. I’ve been following it very closely. But, I mean, I. I have a question about the strategy behind it. I know you mentioned that CFI previously filed a similar suit against CBS.
So why Wal-Mart and why Wal-Mart right now?
Why Wal-Mart? Because people rely on Wal-Mart. Same reason with CBS. People rely on CBS. We cannot stop these products being sold. And that’s not the aim at the so timing these products that these products are legal and they can be sold. However, when a store. Advertises itself, markets itself as being your partner in health care decisions. That creates a responsibility that, you know, people are not. They not have medical degrees. You know, people are going in. And lot of people have come up to me said. If there was a problem with this one, with this product, why is it being sold in CBS? Why is it being sold in Wal-Mart? And it feeds on itself.
And and I’ll be 100 percent honest with you to be Wal-Mart, because Wal-Mart’s the biggest retailer in the country. And if we can get Wal-Mart to challenge going to a smaller retailer afterwards and saying, look what we did to what? Look at what we did to Wal-Mart. Do you want to be next? And then as a one man legal department on this, I’m also a masochist. So I thought like suing the one of the biggest corporations in the United States. A good idea. Someone had to.
So, I mean, what do you expect to be the outcome of this? How long do you think it’s going to take? What do you hope will happen? And how likely do you think that the outcome you want is to happen because of this?
And let me talk about a little bit about the CBS example, sir, on this. I mean, we filed CBSA 11 months ago, actually this morning or I believe last night an order was filed by the court, which sets dates over the summer for the initial motions on this. They the written motions. So we eventually been talking to CBS for nine eleven months regarding a potential settlement of this. I would love to be able to go into details on that. I’m sure you appreciate that while they’re in negotiation. I simply can’t do that. But when we made a lot of progress in negotiation and then we we heard that the progress was slowing down. So we moved on to the to the court stage on that. I don’t want to put a deadline on when things will happen, because I’m sure you realize the the wheels of justice in the United States can turn very, very slowly indeed. Our hope is that we can come to an agreement with all of these retailers without it actually having to go to court, you know, but not in this looking to make money out of this. We’re looking to protect the consumer. And what I think is very important on that and what I’ve tried to explain to CBS and I will try and explain to Wal-Mart, as all we’re asking you to do is to give customers more information. This shouldn’t be radical. If you if you want. A well-informed customer. You have to provide them with the information to get them informed. And as I’ve explained to them, our intention is that if somebody actively wants homoeopathy, they can walk into CBS. They can walk into a Wal-Mart. They can find it. They can get out at the store. It’s the people who don’t aren’t buying it deliberately who we want to protect. It’s our job as an educational organization to tell those who do want homoeopathy, hey, maybe make a gun. Don’t you know I’m making a nonsensical choice? But it’s CBS Jobs, Wal-Mart retailer not to provide deceptive information about those products when there’s something wrong.
Yeah. You know, recently you bring you bring up how kind of slowly these wheels turn in the United States. Recently, Jonathan Jerri of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, who will actually be speaking at this year’s Psychon. He did an investigation into into the homoeopathic remedy that you mentioned. And it’s a tongue twister celecoxib.
I still clocking them. Yes. And so the sellers claim that it fights the flu. And Jonathan Jeri’s investigation found that around two thirds of Montreal pharmacies carry this stuff. So in the wake of the investigation, as you’ve likely heard, Quebec pharmacies have now put up small signs in front of homeopathic products on shelves which stay in French. Of course, that the effectiveness of homeopathic products is generally not supported by scientific evidence based on data.
Now, would you be would you be satisfied with that kind of outcome here? And I mean, what are the legal constraints in the US that are making the process so slow compared to, say, Canada?
A lot of the problem in the United States is that we have this split notion of responsibility on this. Are we have two government agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration is responsible. Not surprisingly. Throgs, what goes into the product? Well, what they can claim. The FTC, on the other hand, is responsible for a lot of the labeling of it. What they are required to put it on the package and what they cannot put in the package where all the lawsuit comes in is, though we’re not challenging those requirements because there is nothing harder in this world than suing a federal agency to get them to do that job. And they simply we would argue they just haven’t been doing their job on homeopathic. So what we are instead arguing is that the retailers themselves in how they display a product, where they put the product, what signs they put up around the product have a responsibility. Is an example that I always use. If, for example, you know, CBS had that Wal-Mart’s own brand of soda. Right. That their own brand of cola. I think it’s called Sam’s choice or whatever. And they have a regular one and they have a diet. What if they were selling the regular product underneath the sign that says diet drinks and in a diet drinks section? Oh, the simple fact that the camp actually says on the back of it, you know, calories per serving wouldn’t be enough to defend them if they were trying to send the message that this was a diet drink. And that’s all weight. That’s all we’re saying about the hamming up thing that you want to sell it, put it in a section that’s called homoeopathy. I love what Canada has done. I’m not I don’t want to comment specifically on if that would be the smash in America, because I need to know, you know, exactly more about the situation. And I don’t want to tie myself down to a specific. But the concept of putting a sign there which says, hey, look at what you’re buying. This is homoeopathy. If you want this, go ahead, put it in your basket. But if you’re buying this by mistake because you think it’s real medicine, put it back on the shelf and buy yourself some ah, some Motrin and some Tylenol, cold and sinus, if it’s making claims and and people believe it, that I mean, that’s what you’re saying is is practically fraud.
Right. I mean you said to Fast Company actually that if Tylenol, for example, put on its packaging that it would help regrow limbs after amputation, that Tylenol would get closed down by the FDA.
And it sounds far fetched, but I think part of it, and this is what you said in an NPR, actually, is that I mean, it seems as if some people believe homier homoeopathy is similar to herbal medicine or other kinds of natural forms of medicine rather than just straight up, not medicine, sugar pills, water, whatever.
Right. Every year when I’ve talked to friends about this lawsuit, it’s that like, oh, why are you trying to take away my St. John’s Wart? Why are you trying to take away my fungal supplement? And it I not. It’s really important that people know this is about homeopathy, not alternative medicine.
Homeopathy is your intention isn’t to take away this other stuff or I mean really to take away homoeopathy.
You know, if you want to ask me personally, should anybody buy homeopathic? My answer is no. Yeah. But as a lawyer, that’s that’s not my job. And that’s not the law that we’re showing under. It doesn’t allow us to say don’t sell this product. It’s a legal product. But what it does require and the District of Columbia gives people an affirmative right to truthful information about products that they buy in the desk, Columbia. If you walk into a car dealership and you know, Bobby, they can’t put a sign in the windows saying, you know, it’s seventy five miles per gallon. It’s not your responsibility as a consumer to look at that and go. I’m pretty certain the Humvee doesn’t. Maybe I should buy a Prius instead.
Once you realize what homeopathy really is, people like you and I, at least we see how truly ridiculous it is and even harmful. But what do you think of this idea that there’s that homoeopathy, of course, which has been around for a long time, but it’s you know that the way that it functions in today’s marketplace. What do you say to the idea that there is an underlying distrust of the pharmaceutical industry? And a good portion of that distrust, I think is is warranted. Do you think in any way that Hermia Homoeopathy is a reaction or a direct result of this type of distrust? And how do we navigate that as not only in terms of this lawsuit or in talking about similar lawsuits, but just as skeptics and as people who talk about these issues?
I couldn’t agree with you more. I have been cold in the last year more times than I care to remember. I’ve been told I’m a shill for Big Pharma. I’m a really poorly paid shill for Big Pharma. When the mortgage bill comes each month, I would really like those checks, whether it whether it’s from Big Pharma, whether it’s from George Soros, because that apparently I’m also a. But George Soros. Oh, it’s nice work, if you can get it. But really, the checks have all been lost in the mail. Yeah. There are problems with with Big Pharma. I was listening to an NPR show recently about anti anti biotic resistant bacteria and how old the drug industry, because of the high testing costs and the low profits involved simply on developing new antibiotics. Some that there are problems with big pharma. There are problems with the American health care system. I think the humming up and plays into that massively. When you look at a situation where somebody maybe hasn’t made that deductible all or someone, you know, basically has run out of coverage, essentially all that coverage is abysmal and they can’t afford a copay or maybe they don’t even have medical insurance and their kid is sick. That kid has, you know, a sore throat and a runny nose. Now my kid gets to still throw out in particular if they’ve got a fever with that, I’m I’m going to the doctor and I’m checking. It’s not strep. For a lot of people who may not be in a position that they can, they can’t afford that copay, so they’re going into CBS and they’re relying on CBS, a Wal-Mart Walgreens son and the local grocery store, and they’re going down the shelves. And these these things have very enticing packaging. It’s like all natural, no act, no interactions with with other medication. Of course, there’s no interactions because it’s water.
Natural, gentle. Yes. Yeah. And you’re looking to who doesn’t want to use a gentle medicine for that cat. Right. You know, it’s great. It’s the decent thing to do.
And. I might my concern isn’t with the people who is not true, who are bought in to homoeopathy, who want this. It’s that it’s the person after work with the screaming child who just wants something to treat that cat and that they’re being sold by Wal-Mart. They’re being sold by CBS Sugar Water. I why you shouldn’t call it snake oil, because at least snake oil had something in it.
There are. I mean, I know there are a couple cases where that where homeopathic remedies, while it’s not treating what it claims to treat, certainly has the potential to cause undesired effect.
Right. And this there’s three separate ways that I talk about that coming up. But they can actually harm people. The first way is financially. You know, you’re spending money on garbage and things are not cheap. If you look at the price of a solar khorkina, if you’re paying for really expensive sugar pills at that time and that that feeds back on itself because people see it on the shelves of Wal-Mart. See, it’s thirty dollars as opposed to the Tylenol, which has ten dollars in thing. This must be three times better than Tylenol. So as so people spend and I believe it’s three billion dollars a year in the Unites States is spent on over the counter homeopathic remedies. And that in itself is I’m a massive consumer at three, at three times.
Around three times the cost of of Tylenol or Motrin or something. If it really was something that worked and was far more gentle, I would I would, of course, because I’m privileged enough to be able to be able to shell out, give me more bucks. I would buy it because, you know, there’s there’s always this risk benefits analysis that you’re making as as a parent and especially a skeptical parent. So if my my kid has a low fever and or a headache, but it’s not that bad, then I asked them, you know, I could give you some Motrin or Tylenol that that could help you feel a little better, but it might give you a tummy ache later. So. So what do you you know, which which way do you want to go?
And that they need to, you know, very much into the second, Tom, that comes from coming up. These things, these products are not really fully regulated. And when you’re getting down into this microscopic amount of active ingredient, that’s essentially meant to be an act. If you get into questions on measurement and things and add these, these tend to come up when you’re talking about Kids Highland’s, which is a big company. Petra do a lot of baby products. They do teething tablets for babies.
And these are homeopathic homeopathic teething tablets, which were recalled because of what I’m about to tell you. The alleged active ingredient listed on the box is Belladonna, which what do you know, a more normal name for Belladonna? What is it? Deadly nightshade. Now, if you were giving your six month old, your nine month old, 12 month old, I completely forgot my cat teeth, of course, because it’s been many years. If if you put deadly nightshade on the package, you’re not going to give you kids that put Belladonna, on the other hand. Sounds much nicer, but there were incredibly high levels on this. And children were made sick and, you know, never been proven. But there were children who died after taking these products. So that’s a second wave. If there were impurities, if there is the wrong quality control, it can harm people. But the third way in which it is, which it harms people, which again, is critically important for children, is you’re not just taking homeopathy, you’re not taking real medicine. That is not put us there. So your kid has an ear infection. You can use a homeopathic remedy or you can use, you know, an antibiotic and it can be done in two. If you use a homeopathic remedy, the early action may go away because they do after a while. Your kid’s going to be in pain for that time. They’re not being properly treated. But more importantly, there are kids who are death because of child today or infections, though, weren’t treated. There are childhood homoeopathic, asthma medications. So your kid has an asthma attack and you’re handing them essentially a spray bottle of water thinking it’s helping. Asthma kills kids. It’s killing more and more kids because of pollution. So, yeah, it’s it to go back to your original question and I’m sorry, I got very Hoft off track that I’m going to go back to your original question. Yes, there is a mistrust of and I’m using scare quotes that the listeners can’t hear a big pharma out there. And there’s a lot of there’s a lot of real problems with the healthcare system. There’s a lot of real problems with the pharmaceutical industry. But the solution to that isn’t homoeopathy, which is a scam. It is a rip off. It is giving people sugar water. And these companies, they like to portray himself as the underdog. You know that that we are trying to get rid of them because of big pharma. Three billion dollars a year in the United States. That is not a small amount of money.
They don’t like to be told that big business, but that big business, that they are big business and part of an even bigger sort of natural pushback industry against against the pharmaceutical industry. And you and I and I think most of us can agree, of course, that the pharmaceutical industry and the health care system are in many ways broken. But this is a theme that we keep coming back to in the skeptics world on point of inquiry in the food and parenting world that I’m so heavily involved in. And that is that when there are these complex systemic problems in our institutions and in our industries, that that creates, of course, this distrust.
But people, you know, bless all of our hearts. We want we want the simplest solutions to these complex problems. And it kind of feels good to be able to hold something tangible in our hands, whether it be natural path here are homoeopathy or essential oils, because it gives us this feeling that we’re somehow fighting back or somehow protecting ourselves. I guess it all comes down to really tackling those problems instead of, you know, instead of pursuing something that seems like an easy fix. But as you say, is a scam. What are your thoughts on that?
Absolutely. You know, we could talk for hours and hours and hours about how health care should be delivered to, you know, the importance of good nutrition. And does a does the profit motive in health care mean we over rely on treatment and under rely on prevention? And then what about, like, end of life care? And, you know, I’ll be overreliant on on tests. What is the legal industry done to health care with lawsuits? All of these things we can discuss. Obviously, people come here. I’m not American. I grew up in Britain. I grew up with the bugbear of socialized medicine. I personally loved it. But there’s a bottom line here. And the bottom line is when someone walks in to a pharmacy to spend their hard on money, should they be given the information about the product that they are potentially buying? I think there’s only one answer to that. And the answer is yes, they should get truthful, accurate and sufficient information about the product that they’re buying. I don’t see why people are thinking this is a radical suggestion to me. It’s it’s the fundamental basic. Whatever your political opinions, whatever your religious opinions, whatever your opinions on anything or tell consumers what they’re buying, this this shouldn’t it shouldn’t be radical.
It shouldn’t be radical. You know, and I think it also somewhat comes down to just this this notion or this this tempting and comforting notion that that we should have certainty in all things, especially when it comes to our health. But, you know, nothing is certain. We can’t even be sure, of course, that any time Tylenol or ibuprofen isn’t going to hurt us or will definitely help us to any very specific degree. But we just have to kind of get used to that, don’t we?
It’s just how the world works. You look at look at vaccinations. Vaccinations do not cause autism. Your kid is a phenomenally good idea. Should be compulsory. However, vaccines have risks. And we need to be honest that there is certain low risks are part of living life.
Now, you say that we can’t be certain of anything. I’m going to slightly disagree with that and say we can be saying that there is no duck hot Oliver in a pill of a scorecard. That’s that’s a mathematical certainty. But, yeah, you’re right. We can’t be can’t be certain on outcomes to anything. But there’s a difference if my if my kid is sick, I want to treat my kid with a product that contains medicine that has been tested, that has gone through FDA approval, that doctors who have spent years at university learning this for them. I want to give them that product rather than giving them something just because it has a pretty label and it says it’s not true.
It brings to mind another question that I’m hoping you can shed light on. And that is, I mean, as a mom, I’ve I’ve done my share of talking to pharmacists and asking them questions about their products. What has been the response, if you can share from pharmacists or from, you know, from clinicians to this to this lawsuit? How are they feeling about it?
I have received hugs for pediatrician’s on this. Wow. Pediatrician’s so you see this, whether it’s vaccination at but and all of the old mad stuff, because they see the harm of this. They see the kid who should have been boarded with an ear infection two weeks ago. And that kid has gone through two weeks of incredible pain and now may be deaf as a result, all because their parents thought they were doing the right thing because that parents were lied to. Pharmacists tend to love it as well. On the other hand. I’ve come across pharmacists who actively recommend homeopathy.
Do you think they know that they’re doing it just to kind of to make people feel that there’s something being done? I mean, they must know what they’re what they’re prescribing.
You know, if you don’t know, you shouldn’t have a job. Well, I said and I said that these stores put themselves in a position of trust. The pharmacist is an even higher position of trust. And people do that. They ask the pharmacists because they cupful to go to a doctor. Well, they don’t have time to go to the doctor. I think it’s critically important they there aren’t they’re recommending homoeopathy on that. But yet, generally speaking. Again, it’s friends of mine who are pharmacists totally happy about this. I know pharmacists who are mad as hell at the store even sells. That’s gone.
But I know you said that pediatricians haven’t given you hugs. We’re running low on time. And I will hopefully give you a hug this coming October.
And I look forward to Vegas. And I will thank you for your masochism. Thanks so much for joining us.
This has been your host Kavin Senapathy sending you my best wishes until we talk again. Want to help spread the word? The point of inquiry is a production of the Center for Inquiry. CFI is a five oh one c three charitable nonprofit organization whose vision is a world in which evidence, science and compassion rather than superstition, pseudoscience or prejudice guide public policy.
You can visit us at point of inquiry dot org, where you can listen to all of piecewise archived episodes. And remember to subscribe were available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and your favorite podcast app. And please remember to share episodes on social media and leave a review. Thanks again, everyone. And I’ll talk to you in a couple weeks.