Posted 19 September 2012
This is a story of money, of failure of appropriate interpretation of evidence, of a legal process trumping facts. This is a story of consumers being screwed.
This is not a story of whether homeopathy works or does not work – it is about whether evidence and proof is less strong than personal opinion, and of whether “experts” can be believed or even trusted.
This is a story of whether a “belief” should be superseded by the accumulation of evidence and facts that contradicts that belief, and how strongly a commercial company will fight back to keep making money even if the product is actually useless.
What is Oscillococcinum?
Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic alternative “medicine” marketed to relieve influenza-like symptoms. The preparation is derived from duck liver and heart, diluted to “200C” – a ratio of one part duck offal to 100200 parts water (which is a 1 followed by 400 zeroes). This is such a high dilution that the final product likely contains not a single molecule of the original liver. Homeopaths claim that the molecules leave an “imprint” in the dilution that causes a healing effect on the body. This article won’t discuss whether the belief is possible, or absolutely ridiculous.
Wikipedia has a good overview of the product.
HomeoWatch has an excellent overview of “The True Story of Oscillococcinum”.
The essence of the complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority was this:
The television advert for this product made a claim that this product was effective for colds with the clear impression that most if not all users of the product will benefit.
The ASA agreed with the complainants that there was insufficient proof that the product has any efficacy and ruled in favour of the complainants. In fact the ASA evaluated the evidence submitted by Dr David Nye, a homeopath and the “expert” substantiating the product on behalf of the company in favour of the claims of the product, and dismissed his substantiation seeing very clearly that the evidence was insufficient.
However the company appealed the decision, and the appeal committee (comprising non ASA staff), without examining the argument of the complainants, sided with the company and ruled in their favour by simply accepting that the company’s expert, Dr Nye, was an “expert” in homeopathy and therefore his testimony is factual and correct.
The consumers appealed and the case came before Judge King who also ruled in favour of the company dismissing the appeal based largely on the fact that the company had not had a chance to examine the counter argument (evidence) provided by the consumers.
In other words, the company’s own “facts” and Dr Nye’s substantiation was not compared with the counter argument which in fact showed that Dr Nye’s interpretation of the science was blatantly wrong (incompetence? deliberate?) and that the product is in fact useless.
Here are the facts (not assessed by Judge King):
- The company’s own statistician agreed with the consumer’s argument that only 7 out of 100 will benefit from using this product. And as had previously been pointed out, may benefit only by a few hours (the range being 1.5 to 12 hours).
- Dr Nye misrepresented the Cochrane report (confirmed by the author or the Cochrane Report).
The Cochrane Report is a form of evaluating all the evidence around a particular claim or product. It is regarded as the highest level evidence for or against a product. Dr Nye accepts that the Cochrane Report is a “Gold Standard” and therefore that the evidence from this report should be believed.
Dr Nye wrote: “[T]he Cochrane Review is instructive as it covers all the trials carried out on Oscillococcinum like products. Extract from the author’s conclusions of Cochrane review state: ‘However the company did not mention the preceding sentence “Oscillococcinum is inexpensive, easy to take and apparently very safe. It is worth taking Oscillococcinum even if it is of only very moderate benefit. At a population level, there would be significant social gains from even a five per cent reduction in the length of influenza episodes“
This was NOT my interpretation of the report and I wrote to the author of the report, Dr Vickers, to ask whether this is the correct interpretation. NO was his response – the evidence for Oscillococcinum is that it does not work – at best it appears to have some benefit in around 7 out of 100 people and then the benefit is in the range of 1.5 to 12 hours. Dr Vickers pointed out that the last part of the above paragraph was completely out of context.
Dr Vickers wrote: “I did not say ‘Oscillococcinum has moderate benefits; it would be worth taking if it had moderate benefits; therefore take it’. What I said was “it would be worth taking if it had moderate benefits; to detect moderate benefits you need very large sample sizes; more research is needed with very large sample sizes”.
In other words, to conclude, for 93 people using this product, NO benefit can be expected.
Dr Nye claims to be getting great results from using this product – which seems to be in direct contradiction to a summary of all the studies on this product. His misinterpretation of the actual conclusions of the Cochrane Report leads to a potential hoodwinking of ordinary consumers like you and I.
On the Health Products Association’s (HPA) newsletter, titled “CAMS VICTORY”, the following is stated: “We beat the complaint based on the merits of our substantiation and the paradigm of homeopathy,” concludes [Vernon] Bartlett. “We are obviously thrilled, not only for Oscillococcinum, but also because we have secured a landmark victory for CAMS.”
What incredible bull!
Don’t believe me?
Here are the actual documents.
- The company’s, and Dr Nye’s claim that the product works based on inter, alia the Cochrane Report
- The consumer’s argument showing that the product does not work, supported by the author of the Cochrane Report
- The company’s “heads of argument” before Judge King
- Judge King (Final Appeal Committee of the ASA) ruling
HPA Newsletter text
|CAMS VICTORYIt was a triumphant moment for South Africa’s spokesperson of the Boiron product Oscillococcinum, Vernon Bartlett, when the distributor’s appeal against a complaint lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) was successful. The ruling also represented a significant victory for CAMS, as the health products industry has for years been plagued by an inordinate number of complaints lodged with the ASA by a small group of activists with an aversion to the CAMS industry.“The endorsement of a right-to-advertise supported claims for a tried and tested product like Oscillococcinum – falling under a legitimate paradigm such as homeopathy – is long overdue,” states Bartlett. “We believe a necessary precedent has been set and like to think it contributes importantly to the debate on appropriate and relevant control of CAMS, for which the HPA has long been campaigning. Hopefully it will also help encourage sensible reflection on the free-for-all that has developed in place of this control.”Complaints were lodged by Dr Harris Steinman against a Boiron laboratories television commercial promoting the product Oscillococcinum. Reference was also made to claims appearing on the www.lebron.co.za website, among others. Stefan Vos Marketing Regulation Advisers acted on behalf of the respondents and in support of the efficacy claims, while the respondents also submitted an evaluation report by Dr David Nye.“It is so easy for some individuals or companies to exploit the current situation with regard to suspect products and claims, and vigilance is therefore absolutely necessary,” continues Bartlett. “Sadly, it has similarly become commonplace for some with their own agendas to use available platforms to attack not only worthy products, but often also their recognised disciplines. Unfortunately, in all of this the rights of the consumer are too often compromised.”“We beat the complaint based on the merits of our substantiation and the paradigm of homeopathy,” concludes Bartlett. “We are obviously thrilled, not only for Oscillococcinum, but also because we have secured a landmark victory for CAMS.”|