My complaint to Boots about their Learning Store website
The open letter to Boots on the 10:23 campaign website currently has 1450 signatures on it. I hope everyone reading this has added theirs. I know many of you will be in Red Lion Square overdosing alongside me next Saturday morning. I’ve already bought my ‘poison’ and I compensated myself for the embarrassment of buying a homeopathic remedy by leaving piles of leaflets about the 10:23 campaign by the shelves of these remedies at the both the Boots stores in my nearest town centre. To my fellow overdosers: in case things don’t go according to plan, I’ll take this opportunity to say it’s been a privilege and a pleasure…
And to all those who argue that homeopathic remedies are individualised, that it needs a consultation with a homeopath to build up a ‘symptom picture’ and that getting the remedy and dosage right is highly skilled work for which homeopaths are comprehensively trained, I trust you will join the campaign because otherwise you’ll look a bit silly.
Do you realise that the boxes containing homeopathic remedies aren’t kept behind the counter but sit openly the shelves at Boots, that they contain no information whatsoever about what they might treat and that Boots do not require their sales staff and pharmacists to be qualified homeopaths? The result is that customers self-prescribe and, because many inevitably get the remedy and dosage wrong, they end up thinking homeopathy doesn’t work. Imagine that!
‘Customer choice’ doesn’t justify the stocking of this shite. Some fifteen years ago, I was naive enough to buy homeopathic remedies from Boots precisely because they were stocked by what I considered to be a reputable chemist that I could trust. I certainly would not have chosen to buy a homeopathic remedy had I known they contain no active ingredients. That’s not customer choice – it’s customer conning. It’s a scam and I want my money back. Back in the mid-nineties, there would be a chart sitting on the shelf next to the homeopathic remedies Boots were selling, where you could look up what each remedy supposedly treated. Nowadays there is nothing. I wonder why? Nothing to do with the fact that they are just sugar pills, I’m sure.
I’m delighted the 10:23 campaign is getting so much publicity. If it brings to the attention of a few more people the fact that there really is nothing in it and they don’t waste their money like I did, it will have been worthwhile.
The stocking of sugar pills in a manner that misleads customers into thinking they are genuinely therapeutic remedies isn’t the only sin Boots has to answer for. The Boots Learning Store section on alternative medicine beggars belief. I’ve mentioned this appalling website before (as have other bloggers) and today I fired off a complaint about it. I’d already submitted a few comments using the online comments form but, as all you get if you do that is an automatic message saying ‘thanks’, I decided to take it higher. Here’s the main body of my letter of complaint:
Given both the seriousness of my observations and the fact that I have neither received any response to indicate that any changes to the information contained in this website were under consideration, I have decided to resubmit these comments as an official complaint to which I would appreciate a considered response from you.
1. On the comparison between homeopathy and conventional medicine
On 11th January I submitted the following comment:
“I note that the Learning Store purports to be an educational website – indeed, it claims to be “an excellent way to share our expertise and knowledge with teachers and pupils in a way that will stimulate and enthuse the learning process.”
With this in mind, I read through the entire 16+ section on alternative medicine and I have a number of concerns about it. I would like, in this communication, to put just one of these to you.
It is misleading about conventional medicine.
For example, under the heading of ‘holistic healing’, it states that “Holistic healing considers the whole person and how they interact with their environment. It does not just focus on the illness.” The implication here is that only practitioners of alternative medicine ‘consider the whole person’, while doctors do not. I believe this is unsupportable. In my experience, doctors ask whatever questions are necessary to make a diagnosis and this very often includes questions about lifestyle. Also, treatment will often involve a multi–disciplinary approach. In my experience, this is not the case with practitioners of alternative medicine.
Under the heading ‘Conventional v Homeopathy’, it states. “The homeopathic remedies here are picked out very generally and true homeopathy would involve a lengthy consultation where the individual consultation would be discussed.” No such qualification is made for conventional medicine. But it is obvious that the conventional remedies featured are also “picked out very generally”, so why not say so?
I understand that homeopathic consultations can take an hour while a consultation with an NHS GP may last only a matter of minutes. However, as the totality of evidence that we have at present tells us that homeopathy, if it is effective at all, works only as a placebo for conditions that are placebo–responsive and, bearing in mind that, Paul Bennett, Professional Standards Director at Boots admitted to the House of Commons Science and Technology sub–Committee that he had “no evidence to suggest that (homeopathic remedies) are efficacious”, it seems reasonable to conclude that it is the consultation itself that is beneficial to patients rather than whatever homeopathic remedy is prescribed.
My main objection to the way the Learning Store website presents homeopathy and compares it to conventional medicine, is that it does so in such a way as to make homeopathy seem a better choice in the first instance and this is potentially dangerous. I would therefore request that you remove from the section on alternative medicine, the misleading references to conventional medicine that I have specified.”
2. On ‘like cures like’
On 16th January, I submitted the following comment:
“Under the heading of ‘homeopathy’ we are told that, “Homeopathy is based on the philosophy of like cures like. An illness is treated by a substance capable of producing similar symptoms.” We are shown a picture of a man who has obvious cold symptoms and invited to guess which, out of a choice of three ingredients ¬ belladonna, onion and foxglove (digitalis) – used in homeopathic remedies, might be the appropriate one for treating a cold.
The correct answer, we are told is, onion. I presume the reasoning is that, because onions produce tear-jerking sulfoxides, they are deemed a suitable remedy for a condition that has watering eyes as a symptom.
Given that the object of the website is educational, I would suggest you add a rider to this section of the website, reminding the young students who are your target audience that the notion that “like cures like” is a pre-science idea that remains unproven and that homeopathy was invented before Louis Pasteur demonstrated germ theory and that, anyway, we know nowadays that nothing cures a common cold. I suggest the assertion on the Learning Store website that the onion remedy, Allium Cepa 30C, “helps treat a common cold”, could mislead young people into believing that it actually does treat a common cold, so I request that this statement be changed to one that is more accurate. For example, you could state that Allium Cepa 30c supposedly helps to treat a common cold but you have no evidence to this effect.
On the same page of the website I am particularly interested in one of the ingredients you say doesn’t help treat a cold: belladonna. According to Wikipedia, belladonna can cause “sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions”. In keeping with the “like cures like” idea (as the website explains it using the onions remedy as an example), a dilution of belladonna would, presumably, be used to treat one or other of these symptoms.
Yet on this page, we are told that belladonna 30C can be used to “help treat ear pain”; in a different section, under the heading Effectiveness of Homeopathy, we are told that belladonna is “used to treat acne” and on the last section under the heading Conventional v Homeopathic, we are told that belladonna might treat influenza. I am mystified as to how any of these examples accord with the philosophy that “like cures like”, nor why belladonna might be used with influenza but not with colds. I don’t think it will be clear to your target audience either, so would suggest you give some thought to revising that part of the website to make it more appropriately educational.”
3. On the comparison with enzymes and the ‘Vital Force’
On 21st January I submitted the following comment:
“Further to my recent comments, I would like to raise an additional concern or two about the Learning Store website with a couple of further examples of misinformation.
Under the heading ‘Effectiveness of Homeopathy’, we are told that
“Homeopathic medicines may be compared to chemical catalysts. The amount of the catalyst is less critical than its form or quality. Enzymes are biological catalysts.”
The information preceding this talks of homeopathic dilutions of up to 100C. Homeopaths themselves readily acknowledge that homeopathic remedies typically lack even a single molecule of the original ingredient. So to compare it to an enzyme would seem to be misleading and at variance with the educational objective of the Learning Store website.
You may as well compare a sponge with a kettle. If you want to suggest that a sponge boils water as well as a kettle does, even though we’ve never seen it happen, you need to explain how the sponge does this – not just say ‘it can be compared to a kettle’. I realise it’s not a perfect analogy because at least a sponge is useful in other ways but I trust you get my point. I therefore suggest this comparison of homeopathy with chemical catalysts be removed.
On the next page of the website, we are told:
“The Vital Force is energy within the body keeping it healthy and helping to fight disease. Homeopathic remedies energise the vital force.”
Given the educational purpose of the Learning Store website, I don’t think you make it clear that the ‘vital force’ was a figment of Samuel Hahnemann’s imagination and that it doesn’t exist as such in reality. In any event, you don’t explain how homeopathic remedies “energise the vital force” and this explanation would seem to contradict the one on the previous page which compares homeopathic remedies to chemical catalysts. So I would suggest you make some amendment here. Perhaps point out that the vital force was just a story invented centuries ago when we didn’t know any better?”
That I have only specified these concerns shouldn’t be taken to mean that I don’t have others. In truth, I believe that the whole section on alternative medicine, together with the study notes provided is seriously misleading, and would question its inclusion in the website. The fact that there is a unit on alternative medicine in the syllabus for the GCSE Science and Public Understanding AS Module 1, does not justify it, particularly as so much of the information you provide is mendacious or just plain wrong.
I look forward to hearing from you.
But I’m not holding my breath.
Well, it didn’t take long following my complaint to Boots about the Alternative Medicine section altogether on the Learning Store website, for the section to be removed altogether. Not that I am taking all the credit for it. As Andy Wilson comments below, the Merseyside Skeptics lodged an official complaint about the same website to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
To date, I’ve never had more than this standard acknowledgement.
Your enquiry has been referred to one of our team for a response and we’ll be contacting you as soon as possible. I would, however, like to reassure you that your enquiry is very important to us and I thank you for your patience whilst we are looking into this further.”
It seems that while they were looking into it further, they realised that the (unnamed) course the altmed misinformation had been “designed to support” had ended in 2009. How convenient! So there’s no need to do anything more about it and everyone’s happy.
Just one little thing before we draw a line under the matter.
Here’s what Boots said about the compalint to the MHRA:
Bootslearningstore.com is our educational website for schools and does not support the sale of any specific products. Therefore the information on the site does not breach any advertising laws.”
The altmed section of the site was aimed at students aged 16+. It included the assertion that homeopathic belladonna can treat acne. Boots sells belladonna 30c for about £5. It doesn’t treat acne or anything else because there’s nothing in it. If making a false claim about about a remedy for a condition that affects teenagers on a website aimed at teenagers and run by a company that happens to produce and sell the remedy “does not breach any advertising laws”, then it’s time those laws were revised.