I hate to be forced to return to the world’s most boring delusion, homeopathy. It is boring because the battle to inform people how daft it is has been almost won. Now not a single Bachelors degree in homeopathy appears in UCAS, compared with at least five in 2007. But the battle is not quite won with the UK Government. This post is not so much about homeopathy as about the failures of the Government and the MHRA.
The Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA), has just launched yet another consultation and I have felt obliged to waste an entire Sunday writing a response to it, I can’t imagine that any scientist would disagree much with what I have written, but most of them have far better ways to spend their time than bothering about the lunatic fringes of medicine. No doubt most of the responses will come from people who make money from homeopathy, Not just the homeopaths on the High Street, but also the very rich companies like Boiron and Weleda who make enormous profits from selling pills that contain nothing but a bit of sugar.
The consultation concerns what should be done, about homeopathy in the wake of the scarifying report of the House of Commons Select Committee [get pdf], and the governments response to that report [get pdf].
The MHRA’s request for consultation is here. Download the consultation document. You can download my full response [get pdf], Please write your own response and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org before February 17th. Feel free to plagiarise anything you find here.
Another good response is from Healthwatch, [download pdf]
And an excellent response by Prof John C. McLachlan [download pdf].
Now I’ll filll in some of the background and outline why I think the MHRA still hasn’t understood.
The Medicines Act 1968 and PLRs
The Medicines Act (1968) was passed in the wake of the thalidomide disaster. It required evidence that medicines work and that they are safe. It was not possible to check all existing medicines by the time the Act was implemented in 1971, so, as a temporary measure, many medicines, including homeopathic stuff, were give a "public licence of right" (PLR). Forty years later they have mostly vanished. But not for homeopathy. The PLR is the licence that allows homeopaths to break all the rules. They still exist.
MHRA cocked it up in 2006
The story starts with the National Regulation Scheme for homeopathic junk that was introduced by the MHRA in 2006. This allowed, for the first time, indications to be put on the labels of the bottles of sugar pills. There were howls of outrage from just about every scientific organisation (the medical establishment was, as usual, more pusillanimous, with some honourable exceptions). The history is related here in the following posts.
The Science and Technology Select Committee report
This was an admirable effort, It extracted, with some difficulty, admissions from Boots’ professional standards director that the sold pills while knowing that they didn’t work. It also squeezed out of the then Health Minister, Mike O’Brien an admission that they don’t work, Less surprisingly, the head of the MHRA agreed that they don’t work. So it is unanimous (apart, of course, from those who make money from selling things that don’t work).
If you want to know more about Boots’ Professional standards, take a look at Mis-education at Boots the Chemist, or The Vitamin B scam. Don’t trust Boots, or Boots reaches new level of dishonesty with CoQ10 promotion, to name but a few. The oral sessions of the committee were notable for the squirming evasiveness of most of the answers to simple questions. An account can be found in Comedy gold in parliament and tragedy from Prince of Wales: editorial in British Medical Journal
The Government’s response to the report was mostly as truly pathetic bit of official waffle, like those letters you get when you write to your Member of Parliament. But it did contain one good thing."In order for the public to make informed choices, it is therefore vitally important that the scientific evidence base for homeopathy is clearly explained and available." (though even that statement is attributed to John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific advisor, rather than something the Government thinks essential).
"“The MHRA will review the labelling requirements under the NRS to ensure that these deliver clarity as to the status of products and their composition."
The proposals in the MHRA Consultation document’
There are a couple of good things in the proposals. The MHRA proposes to end PLRs (decades overdue, but nonetheless welcome).
The MHRA proposes to stop ‘regulating’ (ho ho) “Bach Flower Remedies” as medicines (but seems happy to classify them as food Supplements, another weasel description to evade sensible regulation). That’s sensible because they aren’t medicines. Homeopathic pills most certainly aren’t medicines either but the MHRA seems to have difficulty grasping that, and wants to treat them quite differently from “Flower remedies”
More honest labelling was about the only sensible thing recommended by the Government’s response. On this topic the MHRA proposals verge on the laughable
At present the labelling allowed under the NRS includes
“A homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for the symptomatic relief of ….”
It is proposed to change this to
“A homeopathic medicinal product licensed only on the basis of safety, quality and use within the homeopathic tradition”
“A homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for the symptomatic relief of……”
Spot the difference!
The is utterly inadequate. In fact it verges on the pathetic (and on the dishonest). Here is an extract from my full response.
"Sad to say these proposals to remedy the labelling problem are wholly inadequate. They are almost as deceptive as the originals. These labels don‘t come anywhere near to fulfilling the requirement in the government‘s response which said
In order for the public to make informed choices, it is therefore vitally important that the scientific evidence base for homeopathy is clearly explained and available
Why, oh why, cannot the MHRA bring itself to simply tell the truth? It seems to be so stifled by some perversion of political correctness that it is unable to do what it must know is right.
Nothing indicates more clearly the ludicrous state of the NRS than the label approved for Arnica 30C pills.
The approved label says
Each pill contains 30C Arnica Montana
Also contains: lactose and sucrose"
The MHRA must decide whether or not it believes Avogadro‘s number or not.
How many people in the general public realise the ―Each pill contains 30C Arnica Montana‖ means that the ―pills contain no Arnica whatsoever‖? The very mention of the words ―active ingredient‖ will suggest to most people that there is an active ingredient when there is not. This wording alone is both dishonest and deceptive.
The rest of the approved label consists largely of make-believe too.
"If you are pregnant or breastfeeding consult your doctor before use"
What is your doctor meant to advise you about the dangers of taking a few mg of sugar when you are pregnant?
"If you take too much of the product (overdose) speak to a doctor / pharmacist and take this label with you,."
Unless the MHRA has disavowed Avogadro‘s number, an overdose is impossible. To allow a label like this makes the MHRA a laughing stock
Labels should tell the truth in plain language. For example they should say
This product contains no Arnica
There is no evidence that it works for any condition, other than as a placebo
Some comments on regulation of magic medicine
Governments like to regulate things. They should have regulated the banks a bit more. The problem arises when you try to regulate things that are myths. Like homeopathy.
Andy Lewis has recently written a superb account of the problems on his Quackometer blog, When the Regulator Believes in Fairies, Who Protects the Public?
The government appears to believe that "training" will solve all the problems. Training people to believe things that aren’t true can never solve problems. On the contrary, it creates problems. Organisations like the Complementary and Natural Health Care Council (CNHC)do nothing to protect the public, They endanger the public (see Why the CNHC can’t succeed). Their excuse for rejecting complaints that members were making false claims was not to deny that the claims were false, but to say that it didn’t matter because that is what they had been trained to say. That is make-believe regulation.
.This is Andy Lewis’s version of an honest label. It looks quite accurate to me.
27 January 2011
News today makes one despair of the morality of governments. Remember those obviously fraudulent bomb detectors, no more than a dowsing rod? Although they are now the subject of a fraud investigation, they are still being sold. The government has banned their export to Iraq and Afghanistan, but NOT to anywhere else, This suggests not only that the government is (or at least was) quite happy to believe in dowsing. It also implies that even when they realise that it’s fraud they take the view that that business is far more important than even the most basic morality. No doubt they will allow fraudulent labelling of medicines in order to protect the homeopathic industry
Does politics have to be quite so disgusting?
11 February 2011. Here is a characteristically beautiful response to the consultation by Prof John C. McLachlan, who has allowed me to post it here [download pdf].