The pharmacy and retail chain CVS has been hit with a civil lawsuit over its marketing of what might be the silliest kind of pseudoscience to still enjoy a modicum of popularity. It alleges that CVS has defrauded the general public by implying homeopathic remedies sold at its stores and online are every bit as effective for treating illness as FDA-approved, over-the-counter drugs.
The lawsuit was filed in late June by the science advocacy organization Center for Inquiry (CFI) in Washington, D.C.’s Superior Court. According to Nick Little, CFI’s legal representation, the complaint comes after years of trying to convince CVS to market homeopathic treatments responsibly.
In 2016, Little noted, the Federal Trade Commission announced plans to more strictly enforce rules surrounding health claims made about homeopathic remedies. (The Food and Drug Administration followed suit with a similar decree in 2017). The FTC’s policy statement issued guidelines that any companies selling these treatments should have “competent and reliable scientific evidence for health-related claims.” Following the announcement, the CFI approached CVS, asking them to revise how they sell homeopathic products in light of the FTC’s actions.
“I genuinely thought that once we brought this to their attention, they’d turn around and say, ‘You know what, you’re right. We should deal with this,” Little told Gizmodo during a phone interview. “But they didn’t, they stopped communication with us.”
Afterward, the CFI lodged a formal complaint with D.C.’s Office of Consumer Protection against the chain pharmacy and retail store, but it similarly went nowhere. In response to the complaint, Little said, CVS argued that it was within its rights to sell homeopathic remedies because they’re legal products. But Little said that’s never been their point.
“The argument isn’t that they’re illegal, it’s about how they’re marketing and selling these products,” Little said.
That’s because, as even as the FTC admits in its 2016 policy, homeopathy is widely considered useless bunk. It’s a category of alternative medicine founded in the 1700s, before we even knew germs were a thing. Homeopathy advocates claim you can treat illness by giving people a poisonous substance known to cause those same symptoms. The trick is to dilute the substance in water so much that the water only retains a “memory” of it but not the toxic effects. This is complete hogwash, according to the law of physics. At best, homeopathic treatments are nothing but glorified placebos, but if improperly diluted or otherwise contaminated, they can actually be dangerous or even fatal.
“To be clear here, we’re not talking about herbal or natural remedies,” Little said. “This is something that has absolutely no basis in any kind of science whatsoever.”
CVS did not immediately respond to our request for comment.
Little and CFI filed the lawsuit hoping to take advantage of the city’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act, a statute designed to “remedy all improper trade practices.” Little claims the act gives the CFI legal permission to go after CVS for alleged fraud, without necessarily having to prove that its marketing has directly harmed a specific individual or specific people, only consumers in general.
While these remedies may often contain explicit labels that state they haven’t been approved to treat, prevent, or cure any disease by the FDA, Little says these labels mean little given how they’re otherwise advertised and marketed.
For example, the homeopathic treatment Oscillococcinum, said to be made from duck hearts and livers and produced by the French company Boiron, claims that it “relieves flu-like symptoms such as body aches, headache, fever, chills, and fatigue.” And at CVS chain locations, the complaint alleges, Oscillococcinum or its own branded remedies are found in the same aisle as aspirin or Motrin, with no clear distinction identifying them as homeopathic or what that term means.
“When you go to their website and type into the search ‘flu remedy,’ some of the products that get brought up are going to be homeopathic,” Little offered as another example. (Note: It did for me.) “If you put a sign above something saying ‘Cold and Flu,’ you are saying that this product treats cold and flu.”
Americans are estimated to spend billions on homeopathic treatments every year. And while CVS is the largest pharmacy retail chain in the U.S. to make money off it, it certainly isn’t the only store to do so. Little says the CFI is prepared to go after these culprits as well.
“We’re not turning around and saying that Whole Foods or Rite Aid doing this is any more acceptable,” Little said. “And once this lawsuit is successfully resolved, if other pharmacies or supermarkets are doing the same thing, we’ll go after them too.”
CFI’s lawsuit is expected to have its first formal hearing later this September. Although the non-profit is prepared to duke it out in court with CVS, Little said, they’d settle for a compromise.
“I would rather the federal government take proper action and stop these products from being sold, but that’s a long way down the line,” Little said. “But as for what CVS should do, I want them to have a separate aisle for homeopathic products. And in that aisle, it should display the FTC’s standard warning that there is no scientific evidence for these products.”
“If they’re going to keep on carrying these products,” Little added, “they should be honest with their customers.”