Liam Farrell: Dealing with the garbage that is homeopathy

A few months ago, there was a mass suicide attempt outside Boots in Liverpool, when the Merseyside Skeptics Society, en masse, took an overdose of homeopathic arsenic in a bid to demonstrate that the medicines are utterly ineffective and should not be sold by pharmacies. Amazingly, they all survived.

Their miraculous survival raises the question; are pharmacists health professionals and responsible members of the primary care team, or are they glorified shopkeepers, happy to flog any old thing so long as it makes a quick buck?

Check out your pharmacy; are there homeopathic remedies, pointless vitamin supplements, expensive flower remedies and herbal medicines lining the shelves? A Boots representative told a committee of MPs that it stocks homeopathic products because they sell, not because they work: 'There is a consumer demand for these products,' he said. 'I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious. It is about consumer choice for us and a large number of our customers believe they are efficacious.' His comments echo Gerald Ratner's infamous admission that gifts sold in his jewellers were 'total crap'.

In other words, there is no evidence it works, but, hey, the health service recognises it, spending £10 million annually on homeopathic treatment (including, to my amazement, a homeopathic hospital, can you believe it?), so it must be OK.

It may be garbage, but if punters are mug enough to buy it why shouldn't we get our cut? The fact the NHS pays for this nonsense lends it legitimacy, and allows pharmacists a loophole to stock it. In turn, the fact that pharmacists stock homeopathic products lend them an unwarranted credibility.

The absurdity of a homeopathic hospital was satirised by the That Mitchell and Webb Look skit 'homeopathic A&E', which you can view on YouTube. We are reneging on our responsibilities, leaving it to others to fight our battles; the principled stand against shysters and charlatans and against the exploitation of the gullible and the vulnerable is being taken by TV satirists, while we, the great and ancient profession of medicine, stand by timidly, afraid to speak in case we be accused of being narrow-minded.

And like Sir Thomas More, our silence is eloquent.

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