The phrase “scientifically proven effective” is thrown around a lot in the marketing world. But in the case of a product making a health claim, what value is there in such a statement? One might reasonably think it means the vast body of scientific literature supports the treatment. But what about when it means that efficacy is based on cherry-picked research, regardless of overall context and currency, barely supporting a pre-supposed notion?
What is a consumer to do then?
Heel (that Heel) recently ran an ad in the Globe and Mail wherein they boast that the homeopathic preparations Nerhoveel N and Neurexan are “scientifically proven effective”. Nervoheel N (a “daytime” formulation) is claimed to calm stressful moments, ease nervousness/anxiety/irritability, and improve general well-being and mood. Neurexan (a “nighttime” formulation) is claimed to restore your natural sleeping pattern and improve sleep quality, without causing morning grogginess.
Recall that, as homeopathic products, the ingredients are so dilute there are effectively no active ingredients. We’ve discussed the plausibility and efficacy of homeopathy again and again: Homeopathy hasn’t been objectively demonstrated to provide any meaningful effects beyond that of a placebo.
So, are these products objectively distinguished from placebo for the extremely vague indications given in the ad? I searched PubMed, Google Scholar, and did a general Google search for these product names. This is what I found:
- For Nervoheel N there was one open-label, non-randomized cohort study that stated “The differences between the treatment groups [Nervoheel and lorazepam] were not significant.” The paper concluded that Nervoheel N is non-inferior to lorazepam. No placebo group was included.
- For Neurexan there were two studies. Both non-random studies compared Neurexan with another unproven treatment, valerian, in the absence of a placebo group. There is no objective way to separate these results from unintentional researcher/patient bias or the placebo effect. Therefore, the results of both are clinically meaningless.
The ad also said they were “clinically proven effective”, implying that there were appropriately-controlled clinical trials run. This is not apparently the case. The only scientific investigations of these products were preliminary at best and certainly not enough to conclusively prove efficacy. Heel is boasting an insignificant result in a single poorly-designed study of Nervoheel N and two clinically meaningless non-random, non-controlled studies of Neurexan as “scientific proof” of “clinical” efficacy.
Apparently in homeopathy, any study will do. Quality schmality.
Perhaps the most grating was the copy at bottom of the ad: “Available in pharmacies and health food stores”.
Actually, no, the most grating is that Health Canada apparently agrees that this level of evidence is acceptable, as both products are registered and approved for the above claims. Unless they are admitting an unacceptably substandard evaluation process, the approval of these products appears to run contrary to their statement:
The issuance of a product licence means that the product has been assessed by Health Canada and has been found to be safe, effective and of high quality under its recommended conditions of use. [emphasis mine]
The above claims are legal advertising for CAM products such as homeopathy. Lax regulations allow homeopathic products with abysmal evidence of efficacy to be sold from legitimate health providers, along with effective medicine, and make claims that are supposedly “clinically proven effective”. How is the average consumer to tell the difference between legitimate and vague-but-misleading claims when each are allowed by Health Canada, each are deemed “effective”, and any of these products can be sold on the same shelf? As Erik Davis pointed out, the consumer protection afforded to Canadians can only be described as homeopathic.
While it’s true that homeopathic products are generally not harmful (as long as the production process is well-regulated to ensure lack of contamination), they are certainly a waste of money given this level of evidence and are not justified over treatments that have far more robust evidence of efficacy.
Health Canada has decided that it’s acceptable for companies to continue selling unproven, obfuscating nonsense with a false air of legitimacy as long as it’s profitable to do so. Canadian health consumers should not be ok with that.