This post has been updated with comment from Loblaws.
Imagine you walked into your local bank, and saw a sign that read:
“Lottery tickets have the potential to ensure a comfortable retirement. Ask us to help you select the lottery that’s right for you!”
You would, I am sure, be shocked. Anyone with the slightest bit of financial common sense knows that lotteries are a losing proposition. For every one person who (temporarily, at least) gets rich, there must necessarily be thousands or millions more who lose money. Lottery tickets are a bad bet, and to advise someone to buy lottery tickets as an investment strategy would be fraudulently bad investment advice.
But worse still would be a sign that read:
“Ponzi schemes have the potential to ensure a comfortable retirement. Ask us to help you select the Ponzi scheme that’s right for you!”
This, of course, would be even worse advice. After all, lotteries sometimes (if rarely) pay off. Ponzi schemes never do. They always collapse, eventually. They make investors feel good, in the short run, but they are utterly incapable of securing anyone’s long-term future. So advising people to buy into a Ponzi scheme would be the height of professional irresponsibility for a financial institution. Only a company seeking to profit from gullibility—to prey upon the public’s lack of financial sophistication—would even think of such slimy advice.
So what about healthcare? Shouldn’t the same standards apply? Wouldn’t it be shocking if a company promoted a healthcare product that had not just a slim chance of working, but literally no chance at all?
Here’s a sign that greeted me in the back corner of my local Loblaws supermarket:
“Homeopathy has the potential to stimulate the body’s own healing powers. Ask us to help you select a remedy.”
The problem here is of course that homeopathy doesn’t work. It cannot work, as a matter of simple biology, and it’s been thoroughly tested and proven not to work. Scientific consensus is clear and unambiguous on this. For some symptoms, homeopathy can provide a short-lived placebo effect. But that’s very limited, and it’s not the claim being made when homeopathy is sold. A company the size of Loblaw Cos. Ltd. has no excuse for not knowing this.
Of course, some people claim that homeopathy works for them. This can readily be explained by reference to any of a number of perceptual failings and cognitive biases. The short version is that personal perceptions and recollections are not reliable: medicine needs to be rigorously tested using blinded trials. After all, many of us know someone—a former neighbour or second cousin once removed—who scored big on the lottery. That doesn’t mean lotteries are a reliable investment strategy.
Presumably Loblaws thinks they can get away with this because of the weasel words they use: words like “potential” presumably mean they’re dodging making any specific claim about cause and effect. That may keep them on the right side of the law. But it still makes the company’s behaviour deeply unethical. If by “potential” they merely mean “it’s not logically impossible,” then the claim about homeopathy may be true. But if they mean that stimulating the body’s own healing powers realistically could happen, then it’s false.
If Loblaws isn’t selling something that works, are they at least selling hope? Perhaps. And hope is a wonderful thing. But many desperate people also buy lottery tickets as a matter of hope, in a desperate attempt to get themselves out of poverty. In both cases, what is being sold is at best false hope, and there’s no honour in selling that.
Homeopathy is the healthcare equivalent of a Ponzi scheme. Loblaws—and any other retail outlet that sells it—should be ashamed.
UPDATE: December 18, 2015: Loblaws Tweeted the following about this article:
Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and founding co-editor of the Business Ethics Journal Review. He is co-author (with pharmacist Scott Gavura) of the peer-reviewed article, “Alternative Medicine and the Ethics of Commerce,” forthcoming in the journal Bioethics.