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So What Wouldn't Boots Sell?

In response to recent questions from the House of Commons parliamentary science watchdog about Boots’ insistence on selling homeopathic preparations, their chief pharmacist Paul Bennett admitted:

“I have seen no evidence that these products are efficacious. It’s about consumer choice and a large number of our customers think they work.”

and added that he thought the responsibility to properly regulate the marketing of homeopathic products lay with the UK drug regulator, the Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

He might have come up with the much pithier, but entirely equivalent: “there’s a sucker born every minute, and we’ll milk them as long as we can get away with it”. Not a very ethical position for a chief pharmacist.

Unfortunately, by law, homeopathic preparations don’t have to work. Until the law is changed, all we can do on this front is stir public opprobrium. But there may be other angles.

On the Boots site you can find homeopathic products to buy online. Ignoring Boots’ own branded ones (an extra level of cynicism), I looked closer at Nelson’s Arnica 30C Pillules. There, listed, were the ingredients: 30c Arnica montana, sucrose and lactose.

But is “30C Arnica” an ingredient? Please. OK, the pills don’t have to work, but surely there are rules about listing ingredients? For any other medical preparation, you generally get the weight or volume of ingredients, in grams per unit volume, or some other units universally recognised and comparable.

So how can 30C Arnica be an ingredient at all?  30C Arnica means… nothing. Nada. Zip. A ml diluted to 600 cubic lightyears. In a pill, far less than a molecule of anything.

And even if, by some huge statistical quirk, a whole solitary molecule did manage to end up in a pill… well, er, which molecule? Tinct. Arnica isn’t pure, it’s a plant extract, and contains many different molecules. None of them are Arnica on their own. So which molecule is it going to be? How would that make it Arnica?

So maybe they might be encouraged to remove Arnica 30C from their list of ingredients, which would leave sucrose and lactose. Under the draconian weight of the Trades Descriptions Act or something similar, surely they would be obliged to label that “sugar pills”. Or at least to add a relatively prominent declaration “Warning: deliberately silly name. Sugar only. Measured by normally assaying methods, contains no other ingredients.”  Of course, they could use EXACTLY the same label for 30c Bryonia or indeed any other 30C preparation. So we can save them some money.

But it’s more farcical than that! Suppose – an unsupported but not, to my mind, unreasonable guess – that in the whole of the UK there might be a single kilogram of Arnica. If this were dispersed across the whole country, up to a height of 20km, the background concentration of Arnica would exceed 30C by many orders of magnitude. In other words, it is highly likely that Arnica wafting around in the atmosphere would contaminate the precious pillules and make them .. well, stronger, weaker, don’t know. Perhaps they should also state: “Warning: background Arnica may render this preparation even less effective than it already is”.

Let’s take it to the bitter end. It is, genuinely, more likely that there is a molecule of Julius Caesar’s piss in that pillule than a molecule of Arnica. So why isn’t it called Caesar’s Piss? It would be MORE ACCURATE.

Anyway, I e-mailed Boots, explaining my reasoning as to why these preparations didn’t contain Arnica or Bryonia.  They wrote back:

“I am slightly confused by your statement as both products do contain Arnica and Bryonia.”

And went on to explain what 30C meant. I replied back, showing them the maths, step by step. This appeared to be too much for them, and they decided to stop encouraging this nutter and tossed me the clearly legally sanitised:

“Homoeopathic medicines are regulated by the government regulatory body responsible for all Medical products in the UK the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

We sell these products to satisfy customer demand in line with the strict controls on Homoeopathic medicines as required by the MHRA and have no plans to stop doing so at the moment.”

Yawn. Anyway, I’m going, when I have another spare moment, to try and find out what “strict controls” the MHRA, with its advisory board containing five homeopathists and at least one specialist in “anthroposophical medicine”, oversees for preparations that it insists don’t need to actually work. Sounds like an excellent use of taxpayers’ money, anyway!

If anyone wants to clue me up on labelling law or those strict controls, get in touch!

4 comments to So What Wouldn’t Boots Sell?

  • I spent an afternoon trying to figure out a lot of what goes on with MHRA with regards to homeopathy and blogged it here.

    The first (and only) homeopathic product that is allowed to show therapeutic indications is Arnicare Arnica – blogged here where you can also see the dossier of ‘evidence’ for the product which includes lots of blether on labelling.

    Email me if you need more help!



  • Excellent post – many thanks!

  • Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by scott_hurst: RT @Blue_Wode: The Hampshire Skeptics Society: So What Wouldn’t Boots Sell? #ten23 // A work of beauty….

  • I just subscribed to your RSS feed, not sure if I did it precisely though? Fine article by the way.