The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) has been the statutory body responsible for the regulation of pharmacy since 2010. It’s status is similar to that of the GMC and. heaven help us, the GCC. Before that the regulator was the same as the professional body, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPS). The RPS proved to be as useless as most other regulators, as documented in detail in my 2008 post, At around the time it stopped being a regulator, the RPS started to condemn quackery more effectively, but by then it had lost the power to do much about it (I hope the latter wasn’t the cause of the former). The body that could do something, the GPhC has done essentially nothing. as described in this post.
I did a 2 year apprenticeship in Timothy White’s and Taylor’s Homeopathic (yes, really) Chemists in the 1950s.
My first degree was in pharmacy. I got my interest in pharmacology from reading Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia in the shop. I soon decided that I didn’t really want to spend the rest of my life selling lipstick and Durex. The latter was quite a big seller because the Boots across the road didn’t sell contraceptives (they changed their minds in the 1960s).
In those days, we spent quite a lot of time making up (almost entirely ineffective) ‘tonics’ and ‘cough mixtures’. Now the job consists largely of counting pills. This has exacerbated the ‘chip on the shoulder’ attitude that was present even in the 1950s. For a long time now, pharmacists have wanted to become the a ‘third tier’ in the NHS, alongside GP practices and hospitals., after hospitals and doctors". . Here are a few comments on this proposition.
First let me say that I’ve met some very good and ethical pharmacists. I did a vacation job in a hospital pharmacy where the boss had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the effects and side effects of drugs, and of their dosage. His advice was often sought by doctors, and rightly so. He had no way of knowing at the time that his advice to replace barbiturates with thalidomide would lead to such a tragedy, because the evidence had been concealed by the manufacturer. Some of the problems alluded to here have already been highlighted by two excellent pharmacists, Anthony Cox and @SparkleWildfire, neither of whom work in pharmacists shops. They are absolutely spot on but they seem to be in a minority among pharmacists.
The problems seem to lie mostly in retail shops. Their shelves are laden with ineffective pills and potions. And the pharmacist has every incentive to sell them. His/her income depends on it directly if it’s a privately owned pharmacy. And his/her standing with head office depends on it in chain store pharmacies. This conflict of financial interest is the prime reason why pharmacists are not qualified to form a third tier of healthcare. The avoidance of conflicts of interest among doctors was one of the great accomplishments of the NHS. In the USA there are huge scandals when, as happens repeatedly, doctors order expensive and unnecessary treatments from which they profit. It’s no consolation that such problems are creeping back in the UK as a result of the government’s vigorous efforts to sell it off.
Here are few examples of things that have gone wrong, and who is to blame. Then I’ll consider what can be done.
In any pharmacy you can see ineffective ‘tonics’ and ‘cough medicines’, unnecessary supplements with dishonest claims and even, heaven help us, the ultimate scam, homeopathic pills.
What’s worse, if you ask a pharmacist for advice, it’s quite likely that they’ll recommend you to buy them.
I was amazed to discover that a number of old-fashioned ‘tonics’ and ‘cough medicines’ still have full marketing authorisation. That’s the fault of the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Auhority (MHRA) who are supposed to assess efficacy and totally failed to do so, Read about that in “Some medicines that don’t work. Why doesn’t the MHRA tell us honestly?” . It’s hard to blame a pharmacist for the bad advice given by the MHRA, but a good one would tell patients to save their money.
Big corporate pharmacies
Companies like Boots seem to have no interest whatsoever in ethical behaviour. All that matters is sales. They provide “(mis)educational” materials that promote nonsense They advertise ridiculous made-up claims in the newspapers, which get shot down regularly by the Advertising Standards Authority, but by that time the promotion is over so they don’t give a damn. See for example, CoQ10 scam and the ASA verdict on it. And "Lactium: more rubbish from Boots the Chemists. And a more serious problem". And "The Vitamin B scam. Don’t trust Boots"
Recently the consumer magazine Which? checked 122 High Street pharmacies. They got unsatisfactory advice from 43% of them, a disastrously bad performance for people who want to be the third tier of healthcare.
Even that’s probably better than my own experience. Recently, when I asked a Sainsbury’s pharmacist about a herbal treatment for prostate problems, he pointed to the MHRA’s kite mark and said it must work because the MHRA approved it -he was quite unaware that you get the THR kite mark without having to present any evidence at all about efficacy.
Of course that is partly the fault of the MHRA for allowing misleading labels, but nevertheless, he should have known. See “Why does the MHRA refuse to label herbal products honestly? Kent Woods and Richard Woodfield tell me” for more on how the MHRA has betrayed its own standards.
When I’ve asked Boots’ pharmacists advice about persistent diarrhoea in an infant, saying I wanted a natural remedy, I’ve usually been guided to the homeopathic display. Only once was I told firmly that I should use rehydration not homeopathy (something every good parent knows) and when I asked that good pharmacist where she’d been educated, she said in Germany (mildly surprising given the amount of junk available in German pharmacies)
Anthony Cox, a pharmacist who has been consistently on the side of right, says
"This is something that needs to be dealt with at a regulatory and professional body by the whole profession, and I am certain we have the majority of the UK pharmacy profession on side."
But the regulator has done nothing, and it isn’t even clear that there is a majority on his side.
At a 2009 meeting of Branch Representatives of the RPS a motion was proposed:
“…registration as a pharmacist and practice as a homeopath are not compatible, and that premises registered with the Society should not be used for the promotion of homeopathy”
Although that is obviously sensible to most people, the proposal was followed by a speaker from Leicester who thought it right to keep an open mind about Avogadro’s number and the motion was defeated. So much for the "scientists on the High Street" aspiration.
There have been two major scandals surrounding homeopathy recently. Both were revealed first by bloggers, and both came to wide notice through television programs. None were noticed by the regulators, and when they were brought to the attention of the regulator, nothing effective was done.
The malaria scandal
A lot has been wriitten about this here and on other blogs e.g. here and here. The idea that sugar pills can prevent or cure malaria is so mind-bogglingly dangerous that it was condemned by the Queen’s Homeopathic Physician, Peter Fisher. It was exposed on a BBC Newsnight programme in 2006. Watch the video.
The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing was an article that originally appeared on the excellent Quackometer blog produced by Andy Lewis. "The Society of Homeopaths were so outraged about one of their members flouting the code of ethics so blatantly that they took immediate action. That action was, as expected, not to do anything about the ethics breach but to threaten Andy and his hosting ISP with legal action for defamation. The article is reproduced here as a public service".
Some of the people involved in this bad advice were pharmacists, Very properly they were referred to the RPS in 2006 qnd 2009, the regulator at that time. They sat on the complaint so long that eventually the RPS was replaced by the GPhC as regulator. Nothing much has happened.
The GPhC did precisely nothing. Read their pathetic response.
Homeopathy for meningitis
An equally murderous fraud, "homeopathic vaccines" by Ainsworth’s has long been targeted by bloggers. In January 2013, Samantha Smith made an excellent BBC South West programme about it. Watch it and get angry.
Anthony Pinkus, pharmacist at Ainsworths, has been referred to the then regulator, the RPS, in 2006 and 2009. It’s said that he took "remedial action", though there is little obvious change judged by the video above. No doubt some of the most incriminating stuff has been removed from his web site to hide it from the ASA. It’s safer to mislead people by word of mouth. Since the last video more complaints have been made to the GPhC. So far, nothing but silence.
Why doesn’t the regulator regulate?
This pamphlet is reproduced from the July 2011 Quackometer post, “Ainsworths Pharmacy: Casual Disregard for the Law“
It’s almost as though those royal warrants, enlarged on right, acted as a talisman that puts this dangerous company outside the grasp of regulators. I hope that the GPhC Council , and Duncan Rudkin (its chief executive and registrar), are not so worried about their knighthoods that they won’t risk upsetting the royal family, just to save patients from malaria and meningitis. Their CEO, Robert Nicholls is only a CBE so far.
Another reason for their inaction might be that the GPhC Council members, and Duncan Rudkin (its chief executive and registrar), lack critical faculties. Perhaps they have not been very well educated? Many of them aren’t even pharmacists, but that curious breed of professional administrators who inhabit the vast number of quangos, tick their boxes and do harm. Or perhaps they are just more interested in protecting the income of pharmacists than in protecting their customers?
The solution to most problems is education. But there is no real knowledge of how many pharmacists in the UK are educated in the critical assessment of evidence. A recent paper from the USA did not give cause for optimism. It’s discussed by the excellent US pharmacist, Scott Gavura, at Science-based medicine. The results are truly horrifying.
“Few students disagreed with any CAM therapy. There was the greatest support for vitamins and minerals (94%, mean 4.29) which could include the science-based use these products. But there was strong support for demonstrably ineffective treatments like acupuncture, with 64% agreeing it was acceptable. Even homeopathy, which any pharmacy student with basic medicinal chemistry skills ought to know is absurd, was supported by over 40% of students.”
If the numbers are similar in the UK, the results of the Which? magazine survey are not so surprising. And if they are held by the GPhC Council. their inaction is to be expected. We just don’t know, and perhaps someone should find out.
I suspect that sympathy for quackery may sometimes creep in through that old-fashioned discipline known as pharmacognosy. It is about the botany of medicinal plants, and it’s still taught, despite the fact that very few drugs are now extracted from plants. At times, it gets dangerously close to herbalism. For example, at the School of Pharmacy (now part of UCL) a book is used Fundamentals of Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy by Michael Heinrich, Joanne Barnes, Simon Gibbons and Elizabeth M. Williamson, ot the Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy at the School of Pharmacy. The introductory chapter says.
“TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE (TCM) The study of TCM is a mixture of myth and fact, stretching back well over 5000 years. At the time, none of the knowledge was written down, apart from primitive inscriptions of prayers for the sick on pieces of tortoise carapace and animal bones, so a mixture of superstition, symbolism and fact was passed down by word of mouth for centuries. TCM still contains very many remedies, which were selected by their symbolic significance rather than proven effects; however, this does not necessarily mean that they are all ‘quack’ remedies!”
Well, not necessarily. But as in most such books, there are good descriptions of the botany, more or less good accounts of the chemical constituents followed by uncritical lists of things that the herb might (or might not) do. The fact that even the US National Institutes of Health quackery branch, NCCAM, doesn’t claim that a single herbal treatment is useful tells you all you need to know.
Joanna Barnes is Associate Professor in Herbal Medicines, School of Pharmacy, University of Auckland, New Zealand. She has written a book, Herbal Medicines (“A useful book for learning holistic medicine”) that is desperately uncritical about the alleged theraputic effectiveness of plants. ("Simon Gibbons is on the editorial board of The Chinese Journal of Natural Medicine. Elizabeth Williamson is editor of the Journal of Phytotherapy Research, a journal that has a strong flavour of herbalism (take the infamous snoring remedy). These people aren’t quacks but they are dangerously tolerant of quacks.
The warning is in the title. "Phytotherapy" is the current euphemism for herbalism. It’s one of those red light words that tells you that what follows is unlikely to be critical. Exeter’s fantasy herbalist, Simon Mills, now describes himself as a phytotherapist. What more warning could you need?
Perhaps this explains why so many pharmacists are unworried by selling things that don’t work. Pharmacy education seems not to include much about the critical assessment of evidence. It should do.
Chemist and Druggist magazine certainly doesn’t help. It continually reinforces the idea that there is a debate about homepathy. There isn’t. And in one of its CPD modules Katherine Gascoigne says
"Homeopathic remedies are available, but are best prescribed by a homeopath"
Ms Gascoigne must be living on another planet.
The main conclusion from all of this is that the General Pharmaceutical Council is almost criminally negligent. It continues to allow pharmacists, Anthony Pinkus among them, to endanger lives. It fails to apply its own declared principles. The members of its Council, and Duncan Rudkin (its chief executive and registrar), are not doing their job.
Individual pharmacists vary a lot, from the superb to those who believe in quackery. Some, perhaps many, are embarrassed by the fact that their employer compels them to sell rubbish. It’s too much to expect that they’ll endanger their mortgage payments by speaking out about it, but the best ones will take you aside and explain that they can’t recommend it.
The GPhC itself is regulated by the Professional Standards Authority, the subject of my last post. We can’t expect anything sensible from them.
In the USA there is a shocking number of pharmacists who seem to believe in quackery. In the UK. nobody knows, though judging by their failure to vote against the daftest of all scams, homeopathy, there is no cause for complacency here.
It seems that there will have to be big improvements in pharmacy education before you can have much confidence in the quality of the advice that you get in a pharmacy.
Yesterday a talk was given at the School of Pharmacy, organised by the “The Centre for Homeopathic Education” (an oxymoron if there ever was one). The flyer had all the usual nonsense. Its mention of “Remedies & Tonics for Cancer Recovery” might well have breached the Cancer Act (1939). When I asked whether the amount received in room rental was sufficient to offest the damage to the reputation of the School of Pharmacy resulting from hosting a nutty (and possible illegal) event, I had the greatest difficulty in extracting any sort of response from the school’s director, Duncan Craig. I’m told that he considers “the policy on space rental to be a UCL management issue, rather than a matter of discussion on scientific ethics with a colleague”. Oh dear.
Malaria in the news, yet again.
Today I had a not-very-friendly letter from Kate Birch
From: kate birch <email@example.com>
As I said we keep on working. while you and your kangaroo committee put on a good show. Try to take this one to the cleaners and more and more people will begin to see the fools that you really are. I hope western medicine saved you for your health crisis but that maybe when you depart you will see the how your bitterness twisted things and made you suffer so.
You may recall the expose in which homeopaths in the UK were caught, in 2006, recommending their sugar pills for prevention of malaria, Lethal advice from homeopaths about malaria prevention
You may remember the saga of the taking down of Andy Lewis’s classic post in 2007 on The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing
Despite all this, in 2008, the trendy Covent Garden company, Neal’s Yard, tried marketing a homeopathic malaria "remedy". The quackometer’s post Neal’s Yard Remedies Offers Lethal Homeopathic Malaria Advice is a corker. Under pressure they withdrew the “remedy” (see Neal’s Yard Ethical Bullshit Remedy . Eventually Neal’s Yard was censured by the MHRA ( Neal’s Yard Remedies ‘rapped by medicines regulator’ )
Then there was Kate Birch of the North American Society of Homeopaths, who advocates sugar pills for every disease under the sun (and follow-up to these claims). Memorably, she visited me in late 2007 and gave me a copy of her book. A visit from Kate Birch sitll comes top of the front page if you google ‘kate birch homeopath’.
Attached to the unfriendly letter was a web page from Abha Light. It is an advertisement for a homeopathic malaria treatment. As far as I can see, it doesn’t say anywhere what the “remedy” contains, but that doesn’t matter if, as in most homeopathic products, it contains nothing whatsoever.
This document contains a direct claim that the treatment "has been successfully been used to prevent and treat malaria . . ."
There follows more utter fantasy
Nonsense like this would be a joke if it were not for the fact that they must be killing people.
Peter Fisher, clinical director the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, said, of the original malaria scandal,
“I’m very angry about it because people are going to get malaria – there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice”
Like most quasi-religious subjects, homeopathy is split into sects, at war with each other.
Homeopathy has become boring, so I’ll keep this short.
It’s clear that the public have rumbled the fraud and that homeopathy is heading back to where it was in the 1960s, a small lunatic fringe on the High Street.
All university ‘degrees’ in homeopathy have closed their doors in the last two years.
Even Peter Fisher sounds increasingly desperate in his attempts to defend it.
If it were not for the unconstitutional interference in politics of the Prince of Wales, homeopathy would probably have sunk even further. Princes who meddle like that should be allowed to cool off in the Tower of London. I can’t understand why his mother doesn’t restrain him before he destroys the monarchy altogether.
The homeopathy industry reminds me of the cigarette industry. Now that they are discredited at home, they turn to exploitation of countries where they get less critical attention.
The most advanced fantastists of the homeopathy business met in the Netherlands on 6th and 7th June to hear about “Homeopathy for Developing Countries”. I was invited to attend by no less a person
than Kate Birch (q.v.). The programme included the following.
- Treating AIDS in Tanzania
- Treating malaria in Tanzania
- Treating malaria in Ghana
- Treating malaria in Kenya (the notorious Abha Light Foundation)
- “Homeopaths from Earth without borders” in Africa and South America. Chagas disease.
- Bhaktapur International Homeopathic Clinic, Nepal.
In my view people who exploit third world countries, to spread the myth that you can cure malaria and AIDS with sugar pills, deserve to be convicted of manslaughter, just as in the case in Australia of the homeopaths who allowed their daughter to die of Eczema (see Bogus therapy for real diseases: more homeopathic killing.
My experience of homeopaths is that most of them are desperately sincere about their delusion. It is a surreal experience to listen to them talking amongst themselves about everything from curing a pigeon’s broken wing to curing cholera with their magic pills. At least in Australia, it seems that sincere delusion is not a sufficient excuse for killing people.
It is little consolation that we are dealing here with the extreme wing of fantasists. Remember that when homeopaths in London were caught recommending sugar pills for malaria prevention, Peter Fisher said something not far short of what I say.
“I’m very angry about it because people are going to get malaria – there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.”
Peter Fisher. Clinical Director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and Homeopathic Physician to the Queen
.A group of young scientists has written an admirable letter to WHO to ask them to prevent this sort of wickedness. Sadly, in the past, WHO has proved itself to be so stifled by political correctness in this sort of area, that is has given some very bad advice). Let’s hope they do better this time.
At least, one might think, a meeting like this is free from the pressures of big Pharma that have caused such corruption in the clinical world. Or are they? The sponsor list at the end looks like this.
More information at Homeopathic “cures” for malaria: a wicked scam and here, and on many other blogs. Just Google “homeopathy malaria”.
Latest from ABC News (Australia)
Parents guilty of eczema baby manslaughter
The baby girl had severe eczema and died of septicemia in 2002.
After a four-week trial the Supreme Court jury took less than two days to reach its decision.
The Crown argued the couple did not seek conventional medical treatment for their child, instead treating her with homeopathic drops.
The defence argued the couple were not warned about how sick the child was by medical staff who examined her.
Thomas and Manju Sam sat in the dock with their arms around each other, crying as the verdict was read out.
Thomas Sam’s brother, who was in the public gallery, collapsed sobbing and was taken outside.
Both were granted bail with strict conditions ahead of their sentencing hearing.
How many times does one have to say it. Sugar pills can kill.
They kill when give given to prevent malaria
They kill when given to treat AIDS
Young scientists have condemned it. Their excellent efforts were reported in The Guardian and in the Times). Anyone with half a brain condemns it.
Most homeopaths I’ve met are genuine people who really believe their own fairy tales. Is being genuinely deluded absolve you from blame? Not in Australia, it seems.