Health Canada should stop approving homeopathic remedies — period: Robyn Urback

If you’ve ever diluted your apple juice with water to cut down on your sugar intake — congratulations! You’ve just made a homeopathic remedy.

OK, that’s not entirely fair. To actually have made a homeopathic remedy, you’d have to dilute the solution so many times that there would basically be no apple juice left. Then you’d have to claim what is now water somehow retains a “memory” of the apple juice, which, according to some research somewhere, can then be used to treat your rheumatoid arthritis or stomach flu.

(Actually, one of the for-serious homeopathic remedies for RA is a solution made with the toxic bryonia plant, but again, the mixture contains virtually non-existent amounts of the solute and is essentially no different from your homemade apple juice “medicine.”)

The next step is to go on or something and crowdsource a logo, then apply to Health Canada for a licence under the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate.

Homeopathic and conventional children’s cough and cold remedies often appear in the same section of the drugstore. (CBC)

The application process involves listing the “medical” ingredients of your product, along with their quantities and potencies (aside: how do you measure the quantity and potency of something that doesn’t exist?) as well as this: “information that supports the safety and efficacy of the natural health product when it is used in accordance with the recommended conditions of use.”

Notice that the condition is for “information,” not “evidence.” That’s likely because there is no evidence that homeopathic products work other than as placebos. Which is fine — it’s great, in fact, if homeopathy works for some people. But that doesn’t mean Health Canada should classify it as medicine.

Research council report

A few years ago, an Australian medical council reviewed 225 controlled studies of homeopathy and found “there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.” Plenty of other reviews confirm as much, though the Australian study remains the most comprehensive.

Proponents of homeopathy often point to a 2011 Swiss report that supposedly confirmed that homeopathy is effective, but the authority of that report is undermined by apparent conflicts of interests involving its authors, weak methodology and loose re-interpretations of existing conclusions.

None of this is new. For years homeopathic practitioners have been peddling magic mixtures, and for years Health Canada has been offering them its stamp of approval — a stamp that validates roughly 8,500 products that are no more effective at treating ailments than my tasteless apple juice mixture.

The latest incident to make headlines is one of a B.C. naturopath’s claim that she treated an aggressive child with a homeopathic treatment known as lyssinum, which is made from the saliva of a rabid dog. Fortunately, the lyssinum is a treatment of basically nothing — as are all homeopathic treatments — since not even trace amounts of the initial solute exist in the final mixture.

That is a good thing, otherwise the naturopath would have given the child rabies, and homeopathic practitioners everywhere would potentially be committing small acts of bioterrorism every time they prescribed it. 

Health Canada hasn’t said much in response to the rabid-dog-saliva treatment other than issuing a boilerplate statement to CBC News, saying: “Health Canada takes the safety of health products on the Canadian market very seriously. Should a product not meet the requirements set out in the associated product monograph and guidance, Health Canada will take action.”

On this and essentially everything else involving homeopathy, Health Canada is stuck: either it affirms the alleged effectiveness of these products despite the total lack of scientific evidence, or it concedes that it has been green-lighting silly water as a health product in its role as a government regulator.

Health Canada has changed the labelling requirements on some homeopathic products in recent years. This product, made by French company Boiron, now has to carry the disclaimer: ‘This claim is based on traditional homeopathic references and not modern scientific evidence.’(Boiron Canada)

In response to controversy in the past, Health Canada has made anemic gestures toward the latter interpretation.

After reports emerged of homeopaths peddling homeopathic vaccines as a “safer” alternative to actual vaccines, for example, Health Canada began requiring that these “alternative” vaccines be labelled with a disclaimer: “This product is not intended to be an alternative to vaccination.”

After a 2015 CBC Marketplace investigation in which producers invented a remedy for children’s pain and fever and provided photocopies of a 1902 homeopathic reference book as evidence of its efficacy, Health Canada began requiring that products marketed for children not make specific treatment claims unless backed by scientific evidence. Labels are also now supposed to read: “This claim is based on traditional homeopathic references and not modern scientific evidence.”

Conferring legitimacy

These guidelines are followed sometimes, and sometimes not. But as long as Health Canada is conferring legitimacy by way of licensing, the actual text on the label likely won’t make much of a difference.

This is not to say that Health Canada should get out of the business of licensing natural remedies altogether: there are varying degrees of evidence supporting the efficacy of different kinds of alternative medicines. But credible evidence to show that homeopathy is anything more than the administration of placebos just isn’t there.

There’s a case to be made that maintaining a licensing framework is Health Canada’s way of “keeping an eye,” so to speak, on the homeopathy industry. To make sure these products don’t make claims they can’t fulfil.

But to that I’d say, for one: the suggestion that these products will do anything remotely medicinal is in itself an outlandish claim; and two: the harm of licensing arguably outweighs the good.

True, the treatments themselves might not do harm, but by presenting them as a credible medicinal option — natural health products approved by Health Canada are supposed to be “safe, effective and of high quality” — will, for some, validate a decision to delay or forgo mainstream scientifically backed medicine. In rare cases, that can be a deadly choice.

Health Canada’s stamp of approval should actually mean something, but it can’t as long as it continues to approve magic potions as medicine.

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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