Drugstore chain Rexall has lately been shaking things up a bit. Industry publication Chain Drug Review recently posted a lengthy piece on how Rexall “aims to reinvent the drug store”. And a recent piece in the Ottawa Citizen says the chain’s new products aim to make life better.
But not all of the attention lavished on the company has been so positive. Dr. Terry Polevoy, an MD who runs the website Canadian Quackery Watch, recently showed me a highly problematic ad from a Rexall flyer inserted two weeks ago into his local newspaper, the Waterloo Record:
Trusted homeopathic remedies offer an alternative way to naturally treat symptoms. Speak to your local Rexall Pharmacist for more information or visit rexall.ca.
The problem, of course, is there’s no reliable evidence that homeopathy works, nor any plausible reason to think that it even could work. In commercial contexts, that’s pretty bad. And it’s worse still when the company selling the stuff is a company people rely on for competent health advice, and when that company leverages the credibility of a licensed health profession to promote bogus wares.
Rexall isn’t the only drugstore chain selling homeopathy and other ‘alternative’ healthcare products. A pharmacist friend who keeps his eyes open for such things tells me he’s seeing more and more of it. Last year, for example, a class action lawsuit was filed against Shoppers Drug Mart and a company called Boiron, maker of a homeopathic preparation called “Oscillococcinum.” The suit alleges that Boiron breached several consumer protection statutes in marketing Oscillicoccinum without evidence that it works.
But even if the suit against Shoppers fails, it’s worth remembering that what’s legal isn’t always ethical. It’s wrong to mislead consumers, even where doing so is legal. And the Rexall flyer is clearly misleading. Homeopathic remedies are incapable of treating symptoms—at least, unless the companies that make them have learned to violate the laws of physics and basic biochemistry. A homeopathic ointment may soothe skin because of the soothing properties of the non-medicinal cream on which it is based; similarly, if you take standard hand cream and add pixie dust it will now be “pixie dust cream,” but the fact that it makes your skin feel better won’t have anything to do with the power of pixies.
And then there’s the placebo effect, rooted in the well-documented fact that the power of suggestion can in some cases have real physical effects: if you believe a pill will cure your headache, then it just might. But such effects are quite hit-and-miss, and hard to predict, and in any case are predicated on a lie. Lying isn’t always illegal, or even always wrong, but when you lie in commercial contexts, both the law and society more generally takes a pretty dim view of it.
Now to be fair, I know that there are other products on drugstore shelves that raise questions about efficacy. Some studies have suggested that prescription antidepressants, for example, are no more effective than placebos. But the key is that there’s a rigorous (if imperfect) procedure for debating the effectiveness of prescription drugs. Yes, the makers of prescription drugs sometimes exaggerate the effectiveness of their products, playing fast-and-loose with the evidence. But the purveyors of ‘alternative’ therapies like homeopathy do that literally all the time.
When I asked him what he thought about this kind of marketing, Dr. Polevoy said the following:
Rexall, like Shoppers Drug Mart, has one thing in mind when it comes to the marketing of homeopathic products. In my opinion, the bottom line—profits—is much more important to them than their customers, and whether or not these products work. Their customers are the ones who will ultimately pay the price, and the pharmacists have no power to warn their customers that homeopathy is bogus, and that they are wasting their money.
The commercial world is full of scams, and all too often people with something to sell have unwarranted faith in their products. Greed and ignorance are nothing new, but that doesn’t mean they are excusable. Companies that claim not just to provide a product, but to educate and take care of consumers, ought to do better. They should do their best to sell only those products that they, and their customers, are justified in believing in.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management