Walmart is being sued for selling questionable alternative remedies.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI), a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that “pseudoscience is prevented from harming society,” filed a complaint Monday on behalf of residents in Washington, D.C., against the giant retailer. The organization claims the superstore deliberately “creates a false and misleading impression in customers regarding homeopathic products, presenting them as an equal alternative to science and evidence-based medication.”
The retailer sells over 1,000 homeopathic drugs–ranging from cold and flu relief to stress aids–both in-store and online. Homeopathy refers to alternative remedies made with natural substances, like plants and minerals, that aren’t regulated or verified like traditional medications or prescriptions. It follows the philosophy that the body can heal itself by virtue of “like cures like,” i.e., you can treat a condition with small, diluted doses of substances that cause the symptoms. For example, small doses of allergens such as pollen might be used to treat allergic patients.
“It’s a very specific type of pseudoscientific nonsense,” says Nick Little, vice president and general counsel of the Center for Inquiry.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) concludes there’s little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment. Eye drops have been found to include crushed honeybees as a lead ingredient. Such products have not been reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety and effectiveness to diagnose, treat, prevent, or mitigate medical conditions.
“Walmart uses the trust placed in it by customers as a provider of medicines to profit from the sale of these products in full knowledge of the absence of evidence for their efficacy,” reads the CFI complaint. By “displaying homeopathic products alongside science-based medicines, without any distinction between them, Walmart is failing to provide truthful information to its customer base, and deliberately creating the false idea in its customers that there is no difference between these two radically different sets of products, in violation of D.C. law.”
Homeopathy has long been debated within medical circles and by consumer watchdog groups. In the last few years, the FDA has attempted to reinforce stricter regulation–or what some critics say, the appearance of it. Last Tuesday, the agency posted warning letters to five homeopathic companies for significant violations of current good manufacturing practice (CGMP) regulations.
“The reason we are bringing these lawsuits is because the two bodies that regulate the drug industry–the FDA and the FTC [Federal Trade Commission]–simply aren’t doing enough [in regard to homeopathy],” says Little. “If Tylenol, for example, put on its packaging, ‘will help regrow limbs after amputation,’ it would get closed down by the FDA.”
The Center for Inquiry argues retailers also should shoulder the burden: Companies like Walmart advertise homeopathic products as effective treatments without taking full responsibility.
It’s not only a matter of consumer financial loss, but also consumer health. Some products are poorly manufactured and contain potentially harmful ingredients, while others act as poor substitutes for established, science-based medications, the CFI says. For example, a parent might forego antibiotics for a child with an ear infection in lieu of homeopathic ear drops. Such alternative care could result in long-term ear damage and deafness.
“When sick people eschew effective treatment in place of homeopathic products, they suffer symptoms unnecessarily for longer,” reads the complaint. “They may suffer long-term consequences, up to and including death.”
Walmart responded to the complaint with the following press statement: “We want to be the most trusted retailer, and we look to our suppliers to provide products that meet all applicable laws, including labeling laws. Our Equate private label homeopathic products are designed to include information directly stating that the claims are not based on accepted medical evidence and have not been evaluated by the FDA. We take allegations like these seriously and will respond as appropriate with the court.”
This isn’t the first retailer targeted by the Center for Inquiry. Last July, the organization filed a similar civil lawsuit against CVS Pharmacy. The action came after the center reportedly spent years trying to convince CVS to market homeopathic treatments with more transparency. Little says that the CFI has since had “very good discussions [with CVS] on changes that can be made.”
To be clear, CFI does not seek the removal of these products from Walmart or other stores. “Homeopathic products are legal, and adults have a right to purchase them regardless of their lack of efficacy,” it clarifies. Instead, the organization seeks to ensure retailers properly label products and keep science-based medicine from being sold side-by-side with homeopathic products.
In addition, CFI holds that Walmart should not suggest that homeopathic products can treat particular illnesses or symptoms unless it has “credible scientific testing.” It recommends clear, legible warnings to consumers regarding what homeopathy is.
Their suggested warnings, however, seem unlikely to be adopted by any retailer that wants to actually sell products. The labels would state: “There is no scientific evidence that the product works,” and, “the product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.”
Little concedes, “It’s asking a lot from the retailer,” but on the other hand, it’s not requesting anything beyond what’s required by the FTC.
“If you are selling a product, you have to provide accurate information about it. The customer has a right to that information,” stresses Little. “You either provide people with the warning, or you stop selling it as a product.”
CFI says it’s willing to work with retailers to suggest better practices and create a safer shopping experience. The general consumer knows very little of homeopathy and its reported failings, so it’s up to Walmart to act as an educator, the organization argues. It’s simply not practical to assume consumers will know the details of product efficacy.
“We trust doctors. We trust the pharmacist. We trust that when we walk in a store, the products they’re putting underneath [a medical condition] sign actually treat that condition. And these homeopathic ones don’t,” says Little. “I think [Walmart] will see that what we’re asking is not unreasonable, is not excessive, and it serves their customers’ interests. That’s what retailers are meant to do.”