Challenging misleading healthcare claims

Boots told to stop making medical claims for pills with no active ingredient

Boots Pharmacies have been told to stop listing medical conditions in their in-store advertising of homeopathic products by the medicines regulator, following a complaint by Simon Perry.

The point-of-sale advertising in Boots stores recommended homeopathic products as suitable treatments for a wide range of medical conditions including allergies, infections, insect bites, headaches and earaches. But homeopathic products contain only sugar — they have no active ingredients.

The products Boots were advertising (manufactured by A Nelson & Co Ltd of Wimbledon) are prohibited from indicating any medical conditions by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which is the statutory body charged with regulating medicines and homeopathic products.

The Boots products are registered under the MHRA's Simplified Scheme for homeopathic products. This does not require the manufacturer to provide any evidence that they actually work — unlike the conventional medicines licensed by the MHRA.

Alan Henness, Director of the Nightingale Collaboration, which campaigns against misleading healthcare advertising to the general public, said:

This is a victory for informed consumer healthcare choice. These products are frequently displayed near the pharmacy areas and could mislead members of the public into thinking they were effective medicinal products. However, as well as being biologically improbable, there is no good scientific or medical evidence that any homeopathic product has any effect over placebo.

Boots came under pressure in 2009 after telling a House of Commons Select Committee they sold homeopathic products despite having no evidence or belief that they were effective for any condition. This admission prompted consumer demonstrations against the high street store, with the 10:23 Campaign protesting sales of the products by publicly overdosing on Boots-brand homeopathy.

Mike Marshall, co-founder of the 10:23 Campaign said:

When we set up the 10:23 Campaign, we appealed to, and petitioned, Boots to remove homeopathic products from their stores — as a responsible and respected healthcare provider we strongly believe they should value their customers enough not to sell them ineffective so-called 'medicines'. With many people considering Boots synonymous with good-quality health advice, their sale and advertisement of useless treatments to trusting customers ought to be utterly unacceptable.

As such, we wholeheartedly welcome this ruling from the MHRA — hopefully it should result in fewer people being fooled into believing that homeopathy is effective, and ensure there's less time and money wasted on products which have been comprehensively demonstrated to be ineffective.

Alan Henness went on to say:

Manufacturers of homeopathic products are being put under increasing pressure by regulators to abide by the same rules that other advertisers have to abide by. While anyone is free to make their own healthcare decisions, they must be given full and impartial information about those choices. Misleading information can be dangerous and must be challenged.

Notes

  1. The MHRA stated:
  2. The Advertising Standards Unit has recently taken action in response to a complaint from a member of the public about specific advertisements in Boots stores.  The complainant was concerned that the advertisements included indications for use but the products were not licensed with indications.  The MHRA upheld the complaint.  Boots withdrew the advertisements from their stores.
  3. The Nightingale Collaboration was set up to challenge misleading claims in healthcare advertising and to encourage anyone who is concerned at protecting the public from misinformation in healthcare promotion to join them in challenging it.
  4. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is the government agency that is responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices work, and are acceptably safe. The MHRA is an executive agency of the Department of Health.
  5. Boots have over 2,000 pharmacies in the UK.
  6. The MHRA state:
  7. The Simplified Scheme

    In 1992 Directive 92/73/EC introduced a Simplified Scheme for homeopathic products. It is regarded as simplified because although the safety and quality of products has to be demonstrated, products are not permitted to make medical claims. The Scheme is restricted to products for oral and external use and does not allow indications (the descriptions of diseases or conditions for which the medicine is intended to be used). In order to qualify for registration the products must:

    • be for oral or external use - this includes all methods of administration with the exception of injections

    • be sufficiently dilute to guarantee their safety

    • make no therapeutic claims.

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