In the midst of flu season you’ll see plenty of tiny Oscillococcinum tablets being dissolved in tall glasses of water. The homeopathic remedy has been in production for over sixty-five years, netting roughly $15 million per year in America. It is also one of France’s top-selling medicines.
Oscillococcinum is based on a discovery by French physician Joseph Roy, who coined the term in 1925. Eight years prior he discovered an oscillating bacterium (which he called Oscillococcus) in the blood of flu victims. He postulated that the bacterium was responsible for a variety of diseases, ranging from eczema to cancer.
Later he discovered the same bacterium in a duckling from Long Island. A fan of homeopathy, of which practitioners believe ‘like treats like,’ Roy began using the liver of the Long Island duck to prepare his medication. (The heart and liver of the Muscovy duck are used today.)
Problem is, nobody else has ever seen Oscillococcus. It was most likely dust accumulated by the movement of water molecules. That hasn’t stopped French homeopathic manufacturing giant Boiron from producing millions of tiny vials each year.
To manufacture Oscillococcinum technicians mix one part duck heart and liver with one hundred parts sugar in water. This process is repeated two hundred times—that is, lactose is mixed into the original mix two hundred times; duck is never added again. What you pay ten bucks for contains no fowl whatsoever. When dilution ceases only sugar and water remain.
The FDA has generally taken a hands-off approach to homeopathic remedies. As long as manufacturers don’t make medical claims the agency won’t regulate. This blind eye has resulted in billions of dollars in sales of sugar water in the United States alone. While enviable to soda companies, it’s terrible medicine.
In fact it’s not even medicine, though reading Boiron’s description you’d think differently. The manufacturer claims Oscillococcinum “temporarily relieves flu-like symptoms such as body aches, headache, fever, chills and fatigue.” A 2015 study found the pills ineffective at treating influenza, which makes sense given that sugar is more likely to promote rather than reduce inflammatory responses. A 2005 study in France and a 2007 study in the UK reached the same conclusion.
Which is probably why the FTC is stepping in. In November the agency stated that companies marketing and selling homeopathic products must either prove efficacy or print that there is no scientific evidence that it works on the packaging. This agency did not mince words:
Many homeopathic products are diluted to such an extent that they no longer contain detectable levels of the initial substance. In general, homeopathic product claims are not based on modern scientific methods and are not accepted by modern medical experts, but homeopathy nevertheless has many adherents.
Boiron has gone so far as to state its products are regulated “as drugs by the FDA”—a completely false claim. Yet makers of homeopathic medicines are sounding off about the FTC’s decision, stating consumer choice is an essential ingredient for overall health.
For one, the American Institute of Homeopathy called the FTC’s decision “unqualified and wholly lacking in merit.” The AIH also believes the FTC is causing harm and mistrust to a “respected traditional system of medicine in the United States,” a rather spectacular claim given that the system was nearly abandoned a half-century ago—in 1970 there were only seventy-five homeopathic practitioners in the country.
Then a revival occurred, predominantly as a response to a real and pervasive danger: the growing influence and lobbying power of the pharmaceutical industry. Much of the natural healing industry is a response to a failing health care system that creates addicts while focusing on the bottom line.
This is especially concerning considering the next potential head of the FDA, Jim O’Neill, wants to strip down the government’s rigorous drug approval process. His basic philosophy is that the free market will figure it out—a stunning display of ignorance in which we can use homeopathy as a guiding light, given that consumers have not figured these products do not work. Most patients trust their doctor’s advice. When those doctors are mouthpieces (and prescription writers) for pharmaceutical companies, nothing about the market is free.
A proper response to chronic misinformation and greed is not more misinformation and greed—in 2007 the homeopathic industry was worth $2.7 billion in America. Homeopathic doctors too have a stake in this given that the median income is $70,000, with $200,000 going to the more successful ones. As pointed out by surgical oncologist David Gorski, the homeopathic industry’s supposed rigorous double-blinded, randomized studies are laughable.
Anyone who’s studied homeopathy much knows that these studies are invariably poorly designed, too small, lacking in proper controls, or have any number of flaws that invalidate them. Of course, there are also some well-designed studies that turned out slightly positive, but it’s clear from the preponderance of evidence that these were due to random chance.
As I’ve written about on this site, the placebo effect is a real phenomenon. How else can one explain the supposed efficacy of sugar water? We already know that sugar is one of the planet’s greatest killers. We also know that humans are susceptible to false claims on pretty packaging. The FTC is not overstepping its boundaries in this decision. The agency is merely filling a gap that the FDA should have plugged long ago.