CVS Sued by CFI for Fraud Over Sale of Homeopathic Medicines

JULY 10, 2018
Matt Hoffman
CVS storefront
This week, the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a nonprofit research organization, filed a lawsuit against healthcare giant CVS for consumer fraud due to its sale and marketing of homeopathic medicines.

An extremely controversial practice in the medical community, products of homeopathy are often referred to as “snake oils,” as they are rarely clinically tested for their efficacy and safety.  According to CFI, it has been invited previously by both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to provide expert testimony on the topic.

In 2016, the FTC announced an enforcement policy around the sale of homeopathies that stated these products must be labeled in a fashion that declares: “1) there is no scientific evidence that the product works; and 2) the product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.”

Similarly, the FDA announced a draft guidance for these products in December 2017, stating that the agency would “apply a risk-based enforcement approach to the manufacturing, distribution, and marketing of drug products labeled as homeopathic” and that products that met those criteria would be subject to enforcement action. Specifically, the products must be labeled as homeopathic and have no FDA approval in the following categories: 1) Products with reported safety concerns; 2) Products that contain or purport to contain ingredients associated with potentially significant safety concerns; 3) Products for routes of administration other than oral and topical; 4) Products intended to be used for the prevention or treatment of serious and/or life-threatening diseases and conditions; 5) Products for vulnerable populations; and 6) Products deemed adulterated under section 501 of the FD&C Act.

CFI’s allegations against CVS noted that the drug retailer uses “marketing, labeling, and product placement to falsely present homeopathic products as equivalent alternatives to science-based medicines, and to represent homeopathic products as effective treatments for specific diseases and symptoms.” In its official complaint, CFI noted the example of Oscillococcinum being sold in CVS alongside brand-name therapies such as Tylenol in its “cold and flu” aisle, without any distinction of the difference between them.

“Homeopathics are legal in the US. CFI has long worked to try to ensure they are properly regulated—unfortunately, the FDA and FTC have so much on their plate, and homeopathic manufacturers have been successful through their lobbyists in preventing effective federal regulation,” Nicholas Little, JD, MA, CFI’s vice president and general counsel, told MD Mag. “CFI believes in informed choice. If homeopathics are to be legal—and that is the current situation— customers must be informed of what they are spending their hard-earned money on. I'd like to see CVS stop selling these worthless products. But that's CVS's choice. However, if they are going to continue selling them, they have a responsibility to their customers and to the law to make sure that the products are not falsely marketed, and that customers are told what they are: unproven treatments which cannot work under any current understanding of science.”

The lawsuit also alleges that the sale and promotion of these items by CVS extends outside of the brick-and-motor locations, as Little noted that upon searching for “flu treatment” on the website, homeopathic products will appear as suggested products to purchase. “CVS is making no distinction between those products that have been vetted and tested by science, and those that are nothing but snake oil,” he said.

According to Robyn Blumner, the president and chief executive officer of CFI, the organization attempted a number of times to address the issue with the retail giant but were ignored. “Homeopathy is a multi-billion-dollar consumer fraud. If CVS would rather line its pockets than protect Americans’ health, we have no choice but to take this fight to the courts,” she said in a statement.

CVS, which acquired insurance provider Aetna earlier this year, has yet to release a statement addressing the lawsuit. However, MD Mag reached out to CVS for commment.

"We believe the Center for Inquiry’s civil complaint against CVS Pharmacy has no merit. We offer certain homeopathic products in compliance with federal law and applicable regulations set forth by the FDA and the FTC," Mike DeAngelis, CVS Health's senior director of corporate communications, told MD Mag. "CVS is committed to assuring that the products we offer are safe, work as intended, comply with regulations and satisfy customers. In the event of a regulatory issue concerning any product we sell, we take appropriate action."

“As CVS grows, through things like the takeover of Aetna, so does CVS's responsibility to present health care information accurately and fully,” Little said. “And putting hoemopathics alongside real medicine isn't living up to that responsibility.”

The impact on the patient, for Little, is clear. “It's inevitable that confusion results [for the consumer],” he said. As for the physician, as the suit deals with over-the-counter medicines, it should not impact their prescription practices. “The benefit to those physicians and clinicians will come from patients no longer being told that homeopathics are equivalent remedies,” Little explained.

“A patient may be filling a prescription and is also told by their doctor to pick up an over-the-counter cough remedy, or pain relief to work alongside the prescription. Once this suit is successful, the chances of them mistakenly purchasing a pack of homeopathic snake oil rather than a scientifically proven remedy, as suggested by their doctor, will be reduced,” he added.

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