Jun 07 2012

Boiron Settlement – Homeopathic Active Ingredients are Neither

At the end of April a federal court approved a settlement against Boiron – the world’s largest manufacturer of homeopathic products.

A federal court has preliminarily approved a class action lawsuit settlement with Boiron, Inc. that will provide up to $5 million in refunds to consumers who purchased certain Boiron homeopathic products, including Oscillo, Arnicare, Chestal and Coldcalm.

This is the result of a class action lawsuit against against Boiron alleging that they sold the above named products with false claims they knew they could not support. Jann Bellamy at Science-Based Medicine gives a good overview of the relevant law and the testimony given during the trial.

Essentially the plaintiff’s expert witnesses argued that the “active ingredients” in Boiron’s products are neither active nor ingredients. The claimed ingredients have no proven efficacy in treating flu-like symptoms or anything else. Oscillococcinum is particularly nonsensical – this is essentially duck heart and liver, based upon the pseudoscientific notion that there are tiny oscillating bubbles present in diseased tissue. This claim is almost certainly the result of misidentifying simple air bubble artifacts on slides. The chain of pseudoscientific thinking is astounding: The air bubbles are misidentified and believed to be disease-causing agents, when they are found everywhere (because they are common slide artifacts) it is concluded that they must cause all disease, and for some reason (likely just chance) duck heart and liver are found to have a particularly large number of these bubbles. So, according to the superstitious and false homeopathic notion of like curing like, a dilution of duck heart and liver should cure whatever ails you. There is no evidence for any link in this absurd chain.

Further, the magic duck heart and liver is not even present in the homeopathic products, because they are diluted to such a high degree that no actual original ingredient is left behind. (So what we have here is essence of fairy dust – not even actual fairy dust.) Therefore the agents listed on the box of these homeopathic products are not active and are not actually ingredients. Sounds like a pretty clear case of fraud to me.

Boiron, however, mounted a vigorous defense. They put on the stand an MD homeopath who admitted there is no scientific evidence to support the claims made by Boiron, but there is 200 years of anecdotal experience by homeopaths for the ingredients used. The products themselves have never been shown in a valid scientific study to be effective for anything.

I have discussed before that courts of law are not the best place to decide scientific validity. There are many factors, such as legal considerations, that can influence the final judgement in a case that have nothing to do with the science. The risk of such cases is that if they are decided based upon the law rather than the science, the defendant can twist the results to claim a scientific victory. For this reason I am also anxious about such cases. Many prominent such cases recently have turned out well, most famously the Kitzmiller vs Dover case over the teaching of Intelligent Design, and the autism omnibus cases over the alleged connection between vaccines and autism. In both cases the outcome was determined by the science, and the judgments were clear and overwhelming.

In the case of Boiron it seems we are headed for a similar outcome, however in this case there is a settlement rather than a judgment. The decision to accept a settlement may be a good one from a legal point of view, but it is a little disappointing that there won’t be a judgment in this case. The settlement amount of $5 million also seems quite low given how large Boiron is. In my opinion their entire business is premised on selling fake remedies based upon the most rank of pseudoscience. Nothing less than a lethal blow is adequate justice.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that this will happen in a single blow. My hope is that this settlement will open the flood gates for more class action lawsuits against snake oil producers who are making demonstrably false health claims for their products. This form of legal remedy may also be less than ideal, but politicians have demonstrated their relative unwillingness to pass effective science-based regulations. Homeopathy should be eliminated by rational regulation, but that is not going to happen anytime soon, so class action lawsuits are a viable alternative remedy.

The best thing to come out of this case is the simple fact that Boiron, who has the motivation and the resources, was unable to provide scientific evidence to back claims for their specific products or homeopathy in general. The strength of court cases (when technicalities don’t get in the way) is that they have strict rules of evidence, and the patience to go through large amounts of data. Apparently over 400,000 documents were examined as part of this case. What is apparent from this case is that the homeopaths, at the end of the day, have nothing. They don’t have the science to back their claims. The best they could do was lame anecdotal evidence.

So perhaps the most valuable aspect of this case and settlement is its potential to raise public awareness of the fact that homeopathy is pure bunk.

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