Homeopathic medicine: Some people swear by it while others swear it's a racket. Up to this point, homeopathy has enjoyed a fairly hands-off approach from federal regulators, but the rules have changed. A new policy from the Federal Trade Commission requires makers of all homeopathic remedies to show reliable scientific evidence to back up any health claims.
Although the FTC has now vowed to crack down on misleading marketing claims, that doesn't mean the products will vanish from store shelves. Manufacturers can still sell homeopathic products without scientific validation as long as they clearly state that either "there is no scientific evidence that the product works" or "the product's claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most medical experts."
At present the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require homeopathic remedies to go through the same drug-approval process as standard medical treatments, but the agency is revisiting that stance. The agency held public hearings in 2015 to decide whether or not to regulate homeopathic remedies in the same way the agency regulates traditional drugs.
Homeopathy is defined as alternative treatments that use natural herbs, plants and minerals to cure ailments. It's based on the theory that "like cures like," which means if you take a dose of a substance that causes symptoms similar to those of your illness, the plant or mineral can — in theory — cure your illness, especially when that substance becomes diluted to the point that it's no longer in the solution.
The practice has been around for centuries and it's been controversial for almost as long, mainly because it's not based on any science.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition." NIH also notes that “several key concepts of homeopathy are inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics.”
"Homeopathy is an excellent example of the purest form of pseudoscience," Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale, told NPR.
But many people use these remedies every day and swear that they have helped cure their illnesses in ways that standard medicine could not. So if it's helping some people, what's the big deal?
The big deal is that homeopathy has become a big business. Americans spent about $1.2 billion on homeopathic products in 2014.
Another issue is that these treatments can have side effects and can interfere with over-the-counter and prescription medications. They could cause a placebo effect, meaning they work for a short period of time but not for the long term, causing a person's condition to worsen before they seek medical help. Someone who is using homeopathy to control diabetes, for example, is not addressing the underlying condition, putting the person at great risk — and that type of scenario is the impetus for the FDA hearings and the FTC ruling.
The FDA will eventually decide whether or not to take a tougher stance on homeopathic remedies and require treatments be proven safe and effective before consumers can obtain them. In the meantime, the FTC is making it easier to tell if there's any science behind the claims.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in April 2015 and has been updated with new information.