Thursday, 26 November 2009

Boots' cynical stance on homeopathy

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There's something of a backlash taking place online against Boots today, after their professional standards director Paul Bennett admitted before a parliamentary committee yesterday that the chain sell homeopathic remedies because they sell, even though they know there is no scientific evidence that they actually work. Here's the key quote from the Daily Telegraph's report:
"There is certainly a consumer demand for these products," [Bennett] said. "I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious. "It is about consumer choice for us and a large number of our customers believe they are efficacious."
Bennett was speaking before House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, as part of a parliamentary investigation into the evidence behind homeopathy. The committe heard evidence from scpetics such as Dr Ben Goldacre, Edzard Ernst and Tracey Brown of Sense About Science, as well as advocates for homeopathy. You can read the Guardian's live blog (well, it was live yesterday) from the hearing for a full recap.

As I said, Bennett's comments have stirred up lots of criticsim of Boots online, including this excellent open letter from the Merseyside Sceptics Society, which I think sums up the argument rather well. Here's a snippett:

We call upon Boots to withdraw all homeopathic products from your shelves. You should not be involved in the sale of ineffective products, because your customers trust you to do what is right for their health. Surely you agree that your commitment to excellent patient care is better served by supplying only those products whose claims can be substantiated by rigorous scientific research? Or do you really believe that Boots should be in the business of selling placebos to the sick and the injured?

The support lent by Boots to this quack therapy contributes directly to its acceptance as a valid medical treatment by the British public, acceptance it does not warrant and support it does not deserve. Please do the right thing, and remove this bogus therapy from your shelves.

As the Merseyside Sceptics point out, as the leading pharmacy in Britain, a lot of people trust Boots, and the chain itself boasts a commitment to "providing easy access to quality healthcare services". By putting a product on its shelves, Boots immediately lends that product a degree of credibility. This is demonstrated by what Robert Wilson, chairman of the British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers, told the committee yesterday:

"Boots are a very important retailer, they sell a great deal of these products. If these products don't work beyond the placebo effect, why do people keep buying them?"
It'll be interesting to see how Boots respond to the criticism - this is certainly a story to keep an eye on.


SamTronik said...

If homeopathy works, lets just put a couple of drops of the required chemicals in to the mains water supply, give it a good stir, and wait for it to propagate. Everyone will be cured of everything.

Come to think of it, surely there are minute traces of all of these things in the water supply anyway.

Hold on a minute, are people being ripped off here?!!

John lamb said...

The placebo effect really does work, so what's wrong with selling placebos? Boots seem happy enough to acknowledge that's all they are.

Heck, they may even be more effective the more you've paid for them (see e.g. Shiv - Placebo Effects of Marketing Actions). They're ripping you off and doing you a favour at the same time!

The real problem is people who want to replace conventional medicine with homeopathy, especially for serious illnesses - wouldn't it be better to focus on that?

SamTronik said...

I also suppose it matters if they actively market them (promotions, advertising etc).

Eiskrystal said...

-The placebo effect really does work, so what's wrong with selling placebos? Boots seem happy enough to acknowledge that's all they are.-

Because its dishonest, its unethical, because the people making this stuff are against real medicine and use this as acceptance. Because its easy to accidently buy this cr@p instead of real medicine. Because its a short walk from homeopathy looking like its curing hangover to homeopathy trying to cure cancer.

I shouldnt have to carefully check the packaging on my medicine to check I havn't bought WATER instead. Boots should be severley fined for knowingly abusing it's customers trust.

Maria said...

@John Lamb

There's nothing wrong with Boots selling placebos as long as they don't pretend they are anything more.

At the moment they are pretending they are something more.

I was at the hearing. Click on my name for my review.

Nick Day said...

Very well written. This is exactly why I have been quietly boycotting Boots for several years. These mock medicines are sold alongside genuine drugs, with no explanation that they are as effective as a Trebor mint. Boots should be well ashamed.

Neuroskeptic said...

Is anyone really surprised, though? "Big company tries to make money" - not news. I mean I don't like it, but I'm not boycotting Boots because of it. The next nearest pharmacy is several minutes walk away!