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Statement From CSI/CFI on Walmart’s Marketing of a Homeopathic Flu Remedy

csicop.org

January 25, 2011

Statement from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Center for Inquiry on Walmart’s marketing of a homeopathic flu remedy

We are deeply concerned about Walmart's irresponsible marketing and promotion of Boiron Oscillococcinum, an ineffective homeopathic "flu medicine," through its website, www.walmart.com. Walmart's website states that the product" manufactured by Boiron, is to be used "for flu-like symptoms." 1 The website further states that the product's alleged active ingredient, Anas Barbariae Hepatis Et Cordis Extractum 200CK Hpus, is used "to Reduce The Duration and Severity of Flu Symptoms." The website also features an image of the product's package, which indicates that the product "Reduces [the] Duration and Severity of Flu Symptoms," including "Fever, Chills, Body Aches and Pains."

Walmart's misleading promotion of this "homeopathic medicine" as a treatment for flu is not limited to the webpage on which the product is displayed. Consumers will reach this page only after visiting Walmart's "Medicine Cabinet" page,2 which assures customers that the products Walmart carries will "fight colds and the flu." From there, website visitors will navigate to the "Cough, Colds & Flu Wellness Shop" page,3 which promises to help the customer "Stay on top of cold and flu season by learning about products that can help you and your family stay well, relieve symptoms and recover fast." In its "Cough, Cold, and Flu Buying Guide,"4 Walmart asserts that its products will provide the customer "with everything you and your family need for battling a cold or the flu."

In short, Walmart's entire website is replete with assurances that the products Walmart offers as flu remedies are, in fact, effective for preventing and treating the flu. People are buying Boiron Oscillococcinum based on these assurances.

Walmart's assurances regarding Boiron Oscillococcinum, however, are false and irresponsible. Boiron Oscillococcinum is ineffective against the flu and flu symptoms. Homeopathic oscillococcinum solutions were first produced in the early 20th century on the mistaken assumption that they contained "oscillococci," microscopic bacteria that proved to be imaginary.5 The allegedly active ingredient of Boiron's Oscillococcinum consists of mere liquefied duck liver and duck heart, substances that were thought to contain the nonexistent bacteria. Moreover, manufacturing a "200 CK" homeopathic preparation requires repeatedly diluting the "active ingredient" in water until the odds that the solution contains even a single molecule of it are effectively zero.6

There is no credible scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of Boiron Oscillococcinum's "200CK" homeopathic preparation beyond what is expected from the placebo effect.7 The premise upon which the effectiveness of this "homeopathic medicine" is founded—that highly diluted preparations of substances that cause symptoms in healthy individuals will reduce similar symptoms in patients—has no basis in reality and has been disproved repeatedly.8

This statement should not be interpreted as offering a legal opinion. By marketing Boiron Oscillococcinum through its website, however, Walmart may be in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act ("FFDCA")9 and the regulations it implemented. The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission have issued warning letters10 to other marketers of Boiron Oscillococcinum stating that online marketing of the product for the treatment of flu symptoms violates the FFDCA.

Regardless of whether Walmart is violating the law, its marketing of this product is a profound disservice to the public. Influenza is a serious illness. It can lead to complications resulting in hospitalization or even death, especially among the elderly, the very young, and individuals with certain health conditions.11 It is imperative that consumers not be led to believe that effective preventive and therapeutic measures can be ignored in favor of something that amounts to "snake oil." A product that is useless is a product that is harmful.

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Center for Inquiry wrote to Walmart in November 2010 regarding its inaccurate and misleading marketing of Boiron Oscillococcinum. To date Walmart has neither issued a response to nor acknowledged receipt of CSI and CFI's letter. Because Walmart has misled consumers about the product's effectiveness and ignored private pleadings to correct the situation, we are compelled to speak out publicly against Walmart's irresponsibility.

We urge Walmart to cease marketing this ineffective product immediately. Although we recognize that doing so might not serve Walmart's financial interest, we hope Walmart will act appropriately out of a sense of ethical obligation. The cooperation of good corporate citizens is indispensable if public consumers are to rely on the claims of health-remedy producers and the companies that market their products.

Signed,*

Center for Inquiry and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Representatives

Ronald A. Lindsay, J.D., Ph.D.
President and CEO, Center for Inquiry and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

Barry Karr
Executive Director, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

Derek C. Araujo, Esq.
General Counsel, Center for Inquiry

Signatories from the Scientific and Medical Community

Kimball C. Atwood IV, M.D.
Assistant Clinical Professor, Tufts University School of Medicine

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
Psychiatrist, Author, Consumer Advocate

Willem Betz, M.D.
Professor Emeritus of Medicine, University of Brussels VUB
Chair, Medicine Branch, European Council of Skeptical Organisations

Edzard Ernst, M.D., Ph.D., F.Med. Sci., FSB, FRCP, FRCP (Edin.)
Laing Chair in Complementary Medicine, Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth

David H. Gorski, M.D., Ph.D., FACS
Managing Editor, Science-Based Medicine blog
Leader, Breast Cancer Multidisciplinary Team, and Co-Leader, Breast Cancer Biology Program, Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute

Harriet Hall, M.D.
Physician (ret.); Writer

Steven Novella, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine

Venki Ramakrishnan, Ph.D.
Nobel Laureate (Chemistry, 2009)
Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine (2007)

Wallace Sampson, M.D.
Clinical Professor, Emeritus of Medicine, Stanford University
Former Editor-in-Chief, Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine

Simon Singh, Ph.D., MBE
Author, Critic, Television Director and Producer

* Titles for purpose of identification only.

____________________

1See http://www.walmart.com/ip/Boiron-Oscillococcinum-Homeopathic-Flu-Medicine-6ct/10316942#ProductDetail.

2See http://www.walmart.com/cp/Medicine-Cabinet/976798.

3See http://health.walmart.com/health-tips/cough-cold-flu/20/.

4See http://health.walmart.com/health-advice/cough-cold-flu-buying-guide/689/.

5See http://www.pseudo-sciences.org/spip.php?article39; see also http://www.homeowatch.org/history/oscillo.html.

6See http://www.homeowatch.org/history/oscillo.html.

7See, e.g., http://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343%2807%2900876-5/abstract.

8See, e.g., http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12492603.

9Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. §§ 331, 352.

10See, e.g., http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/EnforcementActions/WarningLetters/ucm215236.htm.

11See http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/.