Guerrilla tactics against Boots and the homeopathic menace

Skepticopathy By Skepticopathy, 13th Feb 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Health>Alternative Medicine

Boots the pharmacy is a British institution, widely trusted and respected. However, they've decided to sell homeopathic remedies, a saddening choice. Join my campaign for truth and science, by replacing point-of-sale information with my own flyers detailing the facts about homeopathy.

About Boots

Boots has been a high street UK retailer for over 150 years, respected by the public and trusted to deliver sound medical solutions and effective medicines. They describe themselves as The UK's leading pharmacy-led health and beauty retailer, operating around 2,600 stores. Unfortunately Boots have decided to jeopardize their reputation in pursuit of profits, by selling mysticism in the form of homeopathic "remedies".

Starting the guerrilla campaign against Boots and homeopathy

Boots use little "flap" style devices all over their shelving, the space for the marketing flyer is 150mm by 75mm. I took several printed copies of my flyer to my local store (Trafford Park, Manchester) and carefully inserted them into the displays around the homeopathy products. Read the sections below for more details on what the flyer says.

I went back and checked the next day and they were all still there. I don't know how long they'll last, but hopefully they'll be read by some shoppers and employees before they're removed.

If you're going to do this yourself be careful not to damage the shelf or the Boots leaflet which is already in the flap, just slip the new one in front of the existing printout.

A message to Boots customers

I decided upon a wording of a message that I'd like to share with Boots customers:

Scientists have devised a technique called the Randomised Controlled Trial, which corrects for errors in thinking, placebo effects and other biases.

Through these trials, scientists have been able to reliably demonstrate that, when all sources of error are removed, homeopathy does not work.

Boots know this, but will take your money anyway. If you rely upon homeopathic treatment you may not get better, but at least Boots will profit from your purchases.

Thanks to the ten23 campaign website for assistance with the exact wording.

My argument against Boots selling homeopathic remedies

First, I want to make it very clear that I have no objection to the development of ever-better medical treatment. It doesn't matter what label is attached or where the idea came from.

What does matter is that a new treatment should be properly tested and found to exhibit acceptable levels of risk, side-affect and efficacy.

It is very difficult to correctly test medical treatments. The human body is complicated - illnesses go into spontaneous remission, symptoms change and humans are very poor judges of cause and effect. Scientists have spent years refining techniques and experimental practices that allow us to know with a high degree of certainty how well a medicine performs.

  • Tests are performed under controlled conditions
  • The results are published, regardless of them being positive or negative
  • The tests are reviewed and repeated by independent peers

Homeopathy hasn't successfully passed a test of this type. It isn't a proven treatment, it's just a collection of opinions and anecdotes. But when people see homeopathy being sold by a trusted provider like Boots they assume it is a proven treatment. They assume that Boots will have vetted the products they sell and will only stock those that are known to be effective. They're wrong of course, the only correct assumption to make is that Boots values profits more highly than integrity.

Get involved, print your own!

My goal with this project is to get Boots to rethink its decision to stock homeopathy products. One way to do this is to educate consumers (so they don't buy them) and Boots employees (so they object to the products).

The image to flyer can be viewed in full size here. The file is 2976px by 4209px and 1.3MB in size. When printed at 360dpi, or full page on an A4 sheet, you'll have 3 leaflets of your own to leave in a local Boots store.

So please get involved, and send me your comments and details of your efforts!

Even it you can't print your own flyer, at the very least please post the URL for this article on Twitter, Facebook and everywhere else thats relevant -

Find out more

  • How to contact me. I'm always happy to provide evidence and facts to back up my comments. If you have questions or would like an interview then please get in touch.
  • Read the book Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, next time you see a claim relating to a new medicine (either from a practitioner or in the media) you'll have a fighting chance of telling facts from hype.
  • Comment on this page. Just keep it civil! ;)


Boots, Campaign, Homeopathic, Homeopathy, Medicine, Pharmacy, Ten23

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author avatar Skepticopathy
I'm just an average guy who happens to have a strong science background.

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author avatar Jerry
17th Feb 2010 (#)

Great idea, If I had a printer I'd run off leaflet to take to a local Boots.. but I don't ;)

Like the article though, good luck!

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author avatar Matthew
17th Feb 2010 (#)

Idk about in the UK, but in the US, there are nearly as many homeopathic wastes of space on the shelves as real medicine.

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author avatar Mandy
17th Feb 2010 (#)

totally agree with this. crazy that ill people are getting exploited by fat cats. i'm going to print some copies tomorrow!

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author avatar Latsot
18th Feb 2010 (#)

I've tried to think of something better than this and I can't. Very good work, I hope it catches on.

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author avatar Peter Crowther
18th Feb 2010 (#)

I'm a scientist and have worked with medical groups for a number of years. I'd like to raise one alternative point of view for comment - see what you think, as I'd appreciate feedback.

No homeopathic remedy has been demonstrated to be better than placebo. However, the placebo effect *has* been demonstrated - repeatedly!

For a placebo to work, the person taking it has to believe in its effect. Creating a buzz around a product, making it expensive and/or hard to obtain, supplying all or most of the trappings of medicine are all ways of causing people to believe that a placebo will work.

Homeopathic remedies do all of this, and can be considered as placebos.

Removing homeopathic remedies from the shelves removes a way of improving the health of some of the people who buy and take them, believing the hype and therefore benefiting from the placebo effect without cost to the National Health Service and with few side effects (since there's no active ingredient). For some people, they're a relatively cheap and harmless way to feel better.

The challenge, in my view, is not to remove these well-marketed placebos from the shelves. The challenge is to identify the subset of the people who take them who would benefit from an intervention that has been repeatedly demonstrated to be better than placebo.

I accept that there's a counter-argument that these products can prevent some people from seeking medical assistance when they require it; I'd very much appreciate a pointer to any suitably peer-reviewed, repeatable research on the *overall* effect on the nation's health of these remedies: on the balance of the large number of people gaining a small benefit from the placebo effect versus the small number losing considerably as they delay seeking treatment for a condition. I'm especially interested in the criteria for evaluating such benefit or penalty, as the issue with a Benthamish "greatest good of the greatest number" is, of course, that you need a second equation relating good and number before you can solve it!

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author avatar Simon
19th Feb 2010 (#)

My girlfriend, a pharmacist, recalls the days when doctors could prescribe placebos to people they felt wanted medicine but didn't have any discernible condition. She tells me they can't any more - presumably for the reasons outlined by Dot below. Arguably, there is a need for placebos. Is it possible the NHS (which spends money on providing homeopathic treatment) knows this and is using homeopathy as its missing - and missed - placebo?

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author avatar Dot
18th Feb 2010 (#)

@ Peter Crowther....

The trouble is that the homeopathic pills are not labelled as placebos! It is unacceptable to make false claims for a product, especially a supposed medical treatment - no excuses can be made even of the 'Oh what harm can it do?' variety.

Deception is wrong, and the product should be removed from the shelves.

Lifted from wikipedia: "The Trade Descriptions Act 1968 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which prevents manufacturers, retailers or service industry providers from misleading consumers as to what they are spending their money on."

Boots get round this (of course they would not be silly enough to technically actually and legally mislead) with the small print on the bottles of pills as discussed here:

Quote: It is only with the last sentence, some twelve lines down, and after all the bold, red font, and block capitals, that Boots finally state:

"A homeopathic medicinal product without approved therapeutic indications."

Boots could have put his in bold, red font, or block capitals. Nothing was stopping them.

But, for some reason, this is the least emphasised statement on the tube..."

So no direct deception then, just weasel words to manipulate customers.

As to "the balance of the large number of people gaining a small benefit from the placebo effect versus the small number losing considerably as they delay seeking treatment for a condition" - since there is more than the placebo effect at work here, eg people just getting better anyway, or the natural fluctuation of symptoms - you might argue that just one person who 'loses considerably' is not an acceptable trade-off for all the others who didn't have much wrong with them in the first place and would have felt better in a short while anyway.

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author avatar BigZ
18th Feb 2010 (#)

And why not offer people cures that act as both placebos and proven remedy?

e.g. if I have a headache and take an asprin, maybe I get better because of both the drug, and the positive effect it has on my mind?

Surely a remedy has a stronger placebo affect if the user can be confident it is proven to work?

Homeopathy sucks.

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author avatar Mark
18th Feb 2010 (#)

@Peter Crowther

I disagree. On the one hand, a ban on homeopathy would remove one form of placebo that may be effective in some ailments, you are partly right. However, on the other hand we should consider the numbers of ill people who are discouraged from seeking proper medical advice when taking homeopathic remedies. Do you really think homeopathic Malaria vaccination is subject to Placebo?

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author avatar Tim
18th Feb 2010 (#)

Mark is right, people are discouraged from taking proven treatments when they're buying these pills.

They give the sugar pills time to see if they work, and they some times get better by fluke and some times get worse by inaction.

Meanwhile Boots get fat off the profits. Look at that photo, £5 for a tube! Insanity.

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author avatar Sarah
18th Feb 2010 (#)

NO! This is totally WRONG! Boots must carry on selling this life-giving pills.

My daughter (3) had really bad eczema. Covering around 70% of her arms and legs. It was very painful and our doctor tried to treat it for 6 months with no success. NONE.

Then a friend told me her child's eczema had been cured by homoeopathy. So I went to Boots and bought the same concentration she'd been recommended by her homoeopathic healer. 6 weeks later my daughter was cured. She is still taking the tablets and there has been no re-occurance.

So there you have it - two children and two cures.

If Boots hadn't stocked these I may have had to go to see the homoeopath myself (very expensive) because my doctor doesn't prescribe these tablets.

Thank you Boots! And all the people commenting on this article - wait until you have a sick child and someone campaigns against the sale of the cure! See how you feel then!

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author avatar Tiffty
18th Feb 2010 (#)


Well, my friends cousin knows somebody that...

Sorry, but anecdotal evidence does not trump multiple double-blind trials that prove otherwise.

Glad to hear that your children had a positive placebo effect.

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author avatar Jon Bray
18th Feb 2010 (#)

I think Peter makes a good point actually. Ben Goldacre has pointed out this moral dilemma himself - people trust doctors and pharmacists not to deceive them and the placebo effect does require belief that the treatment is effective. The only way a doctor can ethically* prescribe homeopathy is if they genuinely believe that it works.

Dot, I think you're either missing Peter's point or confused about the nature of the placebo effect. Telling someone that what you're giving them is a placebo removes the placebo effect so for there to be any value at all in homeopathic tablets they need to deceive their users. This may well make them wrong in the views of many, but I believe there is probably a substantial number of people who would say that deceiving someone for their own good is a noble enough thing to do. This is not to my mind a question that science can answer, and having a real debate on the issue is muddied by the fact that half the would-be debaters won't admit that that is the real question (rather than whether homeopathy has a non-placebo effect).

BigZ - You can indeed give an allopathic drug which will have a placebo effect in addition to its other pharmacological effects. This is all very well and good for the treatment of serious disease, but take an example such as a sprain. If person X takes arnica for a sprain then they will benefit from the placebo effect while the sprain goes away. If they take aspirin for a sprain then they benefit from the placebo effect and the NSAID effect but a small proportion of them will end up with serious disease from the side effects.

Mark, I'm pretty sure that Boots does not sell homeopathic malaria prophylaxis - that's been officially banned by the UK homeopath governing body - albeit with questionable effectiveness, and I'd agree that by endorsing homeopathy Boots may make it more likely that someone will then obtain the antimalarials from a homeopath rather than elsewhere.

I would imagine (I've not checked) that anything sold by boots would have a disclaimer on it along the lines of "see your doctor if symptoms are severe or persist after 7 days" which it could be argued are designed to avoid long term damage being done by use of homeopathy instead of allopathy. These instructions can be ignored (not an issue specific to homeopathy) and there is a strong argument that they ought to be pointed out by the pharmacist (clinicians are taught not to assume that their patients can read) but if the patient then chooses to ignore the advice maybe that really is their own stupid fault at the end of the day (and maybe if they had something stronger they'd do themselves even more damage for the same reason).
*My definition of "ethical" here would be roughly "reflecting the majority view of society".

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author avatar Dot
18th Feb 2010 (#)

Jon - so the only way homeopathic tablets can be of value is if they are dishonestly administered? I found out recently that's illegal for a doctor to prescribe a placebo, because it's considered unethical. So how is it ethical to sell a placebo?

It isn't noble to deceive someone, and who is to judge what is for our own good?

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author avatar Mike Kelly
19th Feb 2010 (#)

@Jon Bray
what evidence do you have that people have to be decieved for the placebo effect to work? Clearly some parts of the effect (e.g. regression to the mean) do not depend on the patient's knowledge. And even if true see BigZ's comment

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author avatar Mark
19th Feb 2010 (#)


There are studies that demonstrate the Placebo effect is, curiously, not entirely removed when the patient is informed they are being administered sugar pills. Positive anecdotes such as Sarah's above are no doubt a mixture of Placebo effects and non-specific intervention effects.

However, it would be interesting to hear how Placebo could possibly be effective in treating infants with teething remedies such as those currently in the Boots product range. Harmless to the infant but surely this is unethical.

As for the Malaria prevention, it was a general point but I do know that Boots have in the past sold homeopathic Malaria protection and their current range has a wide range of wild claims made for them in the homeopathic world.

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author avatar Peanut
19th Feb 2010 (#)

Placebo effect can only work up to a certain point.

If you have cancer or some crippling disease, would you choose a homeopathic remedy to cure it? would you prescribe a placebo?

Most likely not. Why?

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author avatar Barbara
19th Feb 2010 (#)

Don't know why people are suggesting this might be illegal in the links to this page, no harm is done...

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author avatar Martin
19th Feb 2010 (#)

'Scientist' is a useless term, it just comes across like a different sort of pontificating priest and will persuade no-one. Try this:

"A technique called the Randomised Controlled Trial is used to test medicines to see if they work, and what side effects they may have. It's an objective test that corrects for errors in thinking, placebo effects and other biases.

These trials reliably demonstrate that, when all sources of error are removed, homeopathy does not work.

Boots know this, but will take your money anyway. If you rely upon homeopathic treatment you may not get better, but at least Boots will profit from your purchases."

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author avatar John Connell
19th Feb 2010 (#)

Has Sarah heard of 'regression to the mean'? I guess not.

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author avatar Dr. Nancy Malik
20th Feb 2010 (#)

Real is Homeopathy. Homeopathy for Everyone

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author avatar Jon Bray
20th Feb 2010 (#)

Dot - the point that I was making is that some people WILL consider this to be ethical. It comes down to the question of "is it ever right to deceive someone with their best interests in mind?" and as media has pointed out, whether we think of it as ethical or not society thrives on little white lies ("yes, you look wonderful, darling"). I would find it difficult to find fault with a doctor who, realising that there was nothing they could do for their patient other than a placebo, decided it was best to lie to them. I can also understand the logic of those doctors who decide that honesty in the doctor-patient relationship is always the best policy.

Mark - yes, that does sound like an interesting study. I wonder if it comes down to the subjects suspecting a double-bluff? The placebo effect has apparently been shown to be present to a small extent in pets - the theory is that atlhough they don't realise that they're "supposed" to get better on the placebo, they pick up on subtle signs of expectation from the owners. Babies may get a similar benefit. I've always felt that this is overweighed by what I'd term the "false placebo" - owners/parents expect an improvement and may "recognise" an improvement when there is actually none.

Your sentence suggests that although some placebo effect does remain, most of it is dispelled by telling a patient that they're getting a placebo; if this is the case then the argument for dishonesty stands.

Mike, I wouldn't class regression to the mean as being part of the placebo effect. If you compare placebo to the control (ie giving nothing) both populations will tend to experience a regression to the mean. The placebo effect is in addition to this.

Nancy - making yourself sound like Yoda does not actually make yourself more plausible; most of us don't believe in the Force either.

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author avatar Batarista
20th Feb 2010 (#)

If it is ethical for a homeopathic practitioner to give a placebo rather than a homeopathic remedy, then will you please try it (honestly), and see if the patient recovers anyway?

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author avatar Dot
20th Feb 2010 (#)

Hmm yes I did get your point Jon, but unlike you I would find fault with a doctor who lied to his patient, as it's illegal and unethical (according to professional ethical standards, which are obviously strict for good reasons).

What is commonly deemed as ethical in everyday dealings (eg white lies to spare a person's feelings) doesn't come into it as the product is sold as a medical treatment in an establishment that benefits from an aura of respectability through its association with the medical profession, and Boots should not betray its customers in this way.

In my opinion the only place for placebo is its use in controlled trials, where the recipients agree beforehand to receive it (or not as the case may be); or when it is given by a non-professional, eg a parent might give a child a kiss or a sweetie to 'make it better'.

It does seem against common sense not to prescribe a sugar pill if that might help the patient feel a bit better, but as the alternative is lying, that's too bad.

Martin - I agree with you about the use of the word 'scientist'. A lot of people seem to want to use homeopathy because they are disenchanted with science, so stating 'scientists say...' on the replacement label is maybe a bit self-defeating.

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author avatar Jean
21st Feb 2010 (#)

How come you've got a big fat advert for a dodgy fad diet in the middle of your comments....

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author avatar Robert Holsman
22nd Feb 2010 (#)

There are 3 ways to argue against something that you disagree with in cases like this. Some people argue their case on the basis of science, and they conduct experiments to determine whether there is statistical evidence to support their hypothesis, upon which they publish their results which they can use to challenge the claim of others. Then there are those who argue fervently and passionately on the basis of their own beliefs. These tend to be those arguing for something which is either difficult or impossible to empirically establish one way or the the other. And finally there are those who simply smash things down because they don't like them or don't agree with them.

I'm sorry but you are acting like the latter, arguing like the second yet claiming the moral high ground of the first. If you want to make a valid case against Boots, on the basis of there being no scientific basis for homeopathy, then I would suggest you take a more scientific approach in your argument. Saying you're "a guy with a strong scientific background" doesn't cut it. Where is your evidence? What studies are you referencing in this campaign? Have you even produced any evidence and directly challenged Boots with it?

Ultimately, Boots are a retailer. They do not need your approval to sell anything; not for homeopathy, nor for the sandwiches, herbal shampoos, heated rollers, mp3 players, hot air balloon rides or digital photography products that they sell. Presumably, since they have been selling these products for years, they have dome some research into it before putting their name on it, which is more than you have. If you want to challenge them on the basis of selling either dangerous or irresponsible products then get some actual evidence of your own, or provide a resource for those wishing a fuller supply of information but using these tactics does little but damage to those who take a proper scientific approach.

Why not conduct some studies yourself, perhaps in conjunction with a homeopath, a proper double-blind test? Chances are both of you would learn something about the concerns and claims of the other. I'm sure many of us would be interested to know what results it yields. It absolutely needs to be a completely random, double-blind test where the methodology is beyond reproach. THEN you'll have a point to make. But citing "scientists have found ..." Which scientists? Where are they published? Where is your evidence that Boots are aware of these facts? Your leaflets, while admirable, have absolutely no more credible scientific content than the products you are railing against, and you supply nothing to back up your claim. Homeopathy may well be Bad Science, but this really is no better.

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author avatar Symball
22nd Feb 2010 (#)

Robert H,

with regards to evidence- there is a mountain of evidence that conclusively shows that homeopathy is an elaborate placebo, and that the small amount of positive trials that exist are all seriously flawed towards obtaining a positive effect through other means (no blinding, non- random selection of subjects etc.)

Boots as a retailer- not quite- they are a pharmacist, they are licensed to sell medicines, and by selling homepathic remedies they are in breach of several parts of the RPS code of conduct. unfortunately as until recently the head of the RPS was a homeopath there has been little done about this.

Regarding evidence sources- firstly this is a flyer- not a scientific paper, there isn't room for citations, secondly try the cochrane library- a gold standard review of all treatments- result no effect beyond placebo.

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author avatar Dot
23rd Feb 2010 (#)

Good! About time too!!!

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author avatar Stephen Holtom
27th Feb 2010 (#)

I agree homeopathy is woo, but I think that rather than removing the products, better would be if the goverment mandated the labelling of such products.

So just like the messages written on packets of cigarettes, any "remedy" without sufficient supporting evidence must have the word PLACEBO occupying 3/4 of the bottle.

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author avatar Sky
2nd Mar 2010 (#)

I'm afraid it's worse than everyone realizes. A placebo would be one thing, but witchcraft is another. The 'remedies' are made up in accordance with ritual magic, using a specific person with a 'special spiritual signature' to start the process of dilution and succusion. The remedies 'work' by utilizing demonic forces that suppress disease symptoms. This is openly acknowledged by 'classical' homoeopaths - one of whom I used to be. It is the most heinous deception and I will devote the rest of my life to exposing the Truth. Boots is serving Satan's agendas here, not mans.

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author avatar Boots Pharmacist
5th Mar 2010 (#)

These homoeopathic remedies sold in boots do not advertise indications, they simply state what is in the bottle e.g. arnica 30c (no claims are made, so I see no trading standards breach). They are mostly purchased by people who believe in homoeopathy and have the knowledge to know which product to select before they come into the shop. It is not the case that people come in with an ailment looking for treatment and end up getting fobbed off with a homeopathic product.

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author avatar Dr. Nancy Malik
16th Aug 2010 (#)

Real is scientific homeopathy. It cures even when Conventional Allopathic Medicine (CAM) fails. Nano doses of evidence-based modern homeopathy medicine brings big results for everyone

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author avatar R. Person
2nd Mar 2011 (#)

Very Interesting article. It's hard to trust what any company says nowadays, because they're all in it for the money.

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author avatar Shay
19th Apr 2011 (#)

Actually your site is a waste of time. What do you care? Many people swear by homeopathics. At least they wont kill you like your scientific drugs. If people get relief, real or imagined, the outcome is the same....relief. But I personal believe very little coming form the so called scientific community. God is dead and alternative medicine doesnt work, instead kill yourself with our toxic drugs...Ah no thanks!

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author avatar Shay
19th Apr 2011 (#)

Oh I forgot to say. Many drugs on the market are not proven. Many are proven deadly, but not healing. Also, please do not get over the top. The type of things people use homeopathy for are not life threatening diseases needing medical attention. Unless you consider hayfever or warts life threatening. Its not like they are used for treatment of cancer and other life threatening issues. Wake up guys, Advil, Tylenol, Asprin these very simple meds are damaging peoples livers and causing their stomachs to bleed and your worried about homeopathics...find something better to do.

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author avatar Fairy
22nd Apr 2011 (#)

This is totally wrong.
Im a doctor and i can tell you for sure that homeopathic pills are not just sugar pills.
You must read some research archives before you start doing this.
Ofc homeopathy works. PPl who have been cured by homeopathy havent been asked to beleive first. They just have tried it being sceptical as you are.
I know a doctor who was totally against homeopathy saying the same things that you say, then she got involved in research in order to prove the placebo effect of Homeopathy. The result? She proved the opposite and she started to be dadicated in Homeopathy at the end.

Ofc all these that you say here, are very convenient for the pharmaceutical companies bc if Homeopathy gets established and ppl use it more, they gonna stop buying all these expensive chemical drugs which lead to cancer and to big proffit. Just learn more before you say all this.

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author avatar Fairy
22nd Apr 2011 (#)

Also plz dont take homeopathich remedies by yourself. They are not dangerous but you will change your symptoms and then you make it more difficult for the Homeopathist to find for you the right remedy.

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author avatar Fairy
22nd Apr 2011 (#)

And remember placebo works only if you beleive and all these patients WERE NOT BELEIVING!

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author avatar Dr. Nancy Malik
20th May 2011 (#)

Evidence of homeopathy is undeniably positive and consistent. It's a human evidence of experience, gathered from a real-world observation in a real-world setting (not in an ideal artificial laboratory) giving real-world solutions.

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author avatar Dr. Nancy Malik
12th Aug 2011 (#)

A. Basic Fundamental Research
B. High Dilution Research
C. Clinical Research
1. Double-blind Randomised Placebo-Controlled Trial
2. Double-Blind Studies
3. Cohort/Observational/Pilot Studies
4. Systematic Reviews & Meta Analysis
5. Homeopathy as a Genetic Medicine
6. Evidence for specific disease conditions
7. Homeopathy superior to conventional
8. Homeopathy cost-effective than conventional
9. Homeopathy equals conventional
10. Homeopathy superior to placebo
11. Homeopathy improving quality of life
12. Evidence-based homeopathy
15. Animal Studies
16. Plant Studies

Papers related to the above domains are available at Which of them you would like to see and discuss?

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author avatar Filip
29th Apr 2013 (#)

Homeopathy is the best medicine out there. I know countles people who have benefited from its goodness, as well as my self. Ånd I support it very much, so for people who believe in it, dont be getting it of the shelfs let people deside if they want to buy it or not.

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