Walmart Urged to Stop Selling Ocillococcinum

Statement from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Center for Inquiry
on Walmart's Marketing of a Homeopathic Flu Remedy

January 25, 2011

We are deeply concerned about Walmart's irresponsible marketing and promotion of Boiron Oscillococcinum, an ineffective homeopathic "flu medicine," through its website, www.walmart.com. Walmart's website states that the product" manufactured by Boiron, is to be used "for flu-like symptoms." The website further states that the product's alleged active ingredient, Anas Barbariae Hepatis Et Cordis Extractum 200CK Hpus, is used "to Reduce The Duration and Severity of Flu Symptoms." The website also features an image of the product's package, which states that the product "Reduces [the] Duration and Severity of Flu Symptoms," including "Fever, Chills, Body Aches and Pains."

Walmart's misleading promotion of this "homeopathic medicine" as a treatment for flu is not limited to the webpage on which the product is displayed. Consumers will reach this page only after visiting Walmart's "Medicine Cabinet" page, which assures customers that the products Walmart carries will "fight colds and the flu." From there, website visitors will navigate to the "Cough, Colds & Flu Wellness Shop" page which promises to help the customer "Stay on top of cold and flu season by learning about products that can help you and your family stay well, relieve symptoms and recover fast." In its "Cough, Cold, and Flu Buying Guide," Walmart asserts that its products will provide the customer "with everything you and your family need for battling a cold or the flu."

In short, Walmart's entire website is replete with assurances that the products Walmart offers as flu remedies are, in fact, effective for preventing and treating the flu. People are buying Boiron Oscillococcinum based on these assurances.

Walmart's assurances regarding Boiron Oscillococcinum, however, are false and irresponsible. Boiron Oscillococcinum is ineffective against the flu and flu symptoms. Homeopathic oscillococcinum solutions were first produced in the early 20th century on the mistaken assumption that they contained "oscillococci," microscopic bacteria that proved to be imaginary. The allegedly active ingredient of Boiron's Oscillococcinum consists of mere liquefied duck liver and duck heart, substances that were thought to contain the nonexistent bacteria. Moreover, manufacturing a "200 CK" homeopathic preparation requires repeatedly diluting the "active ingredient" in water until the odds that the solution contains even a single molecule of it are effectively zero.

There is no credible scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of Boiron Oscillococcinum's "200CK" homeopathic preparation beyond what is expected from the placebo effect. The premise upon which the effectiveness of this "homeopathic medicine" is founded—that highly diluted preparations of substances that cause symptoms in healthy individuals will reduce similar symptoms in patients—has no basis in reality and has been disproved repeatedly.

This statement should not be interpreted as offering a legal opinion. By marketing Boiron Oscillococcinum through its website, however, Walmart may be in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act ("FFDCA") and the regulations it implemented. The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission have warned other marketers of Boiron Oscillococcinum that online marketing of the product for the treatment of flu symptoms violates the FFDCA.

Regardless of whether Walmart is violating the law, its marketing of this product is a profound disservice to the public. Influenza is a serious illness. It can lead to complications resulting in hospitalization or even death, especially among the elderly, the very young, and individuals with certain health conditions. It is imperative that consumers not be led to believe that effective preventive and therapeutic measures can be ignored in favor of something that amounts to "snake oil." A product that is useless is a product that is harmful.

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Center for Inquiry wrote to Walmart in November 2010 regarding its inaccurate and misleading marketing of Boiron Oscillococcinum. To date Walmart has neither issued a response to nor acknowledged receipt of CSI and CFI's letter. Because Walmart has misled consumers about the product's effectiveness and ignored private pleadings to correct the situation, we are compelled to speak out publicly against Walmart's irresponsibility.

We urge Walmart to cease marketing this ineffective product immediately. Although we recognize that doing so might not serve Walmart's financial interest, we hope Walmart will act appropriately out of a sense of ethical obligation. The cooperation of good corporate citizens is indispensable if public consumers are to rely on the claims of health-remedy producers and the companies that market their products.

 

Signed (Ttitles for the purpose of identification only) by:

Center for Inquiry and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Representatives

  • Ronald A. Lindsay, J.D., Ph.D.
    President and CEO, Center for Inquiry and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
  • Barry Karr
    Executive Director, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
  • Derek C. Araujo, Esq.
    General Counsel, Center for Inquiry

Signatories from the Scientific and Medical Community

  • Kimball C. Atwood IV, M.D.
    Assistant Clinical Professor, Tufts University School of Medicine
  • Stephen Barrett, M.D.
    Psychiatrist, Author, Consumer Advocate
  • Willem Betz, M.D.
    Professor Emeritus of Medicine, University of Brussels VUB
    Chair, Medicine Branch, European Council of Skeptical Organisations
  • Susan Blackmore, Ph.D.
    University of the West of England
  • Sandra Blakeslee
    Science writer and author
  • Mark Boslough, Ph.D.
    Physicist, Sandia National Laboratories
  • Shawn Carlson, Ph.D.
    Founder and Executive Director, LabRats Science Education Program
    MacArthur Fellow
  • Frederick Crews, Ph.D.
    Essayist, literary critic, author, and Professor Emeritus of English, University of California, Berkeley
  • Edzard Ernst, M.D., Ph.D., F.Med. Sci., FSB, FRCP, FRCP (Edin.)
    Laing Chair in Complementary Medicine, Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth
  • Taner Edis, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor of Physics
    Truman State University
  • Bryan Farha, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
    Applied Behavioral Studies & Counseling Graduate Programs, Oklahoma City University
  • Ken Feder, Ph.D.
    Department of Anthropology
    Central Connecticut State University
  • Barbara Forrest, Ph.D.
    Professor of Philosophy, Southeastern Louisiana University
    Author and pro-science activist
  • Luis Alfonso G├ímez
    Scientific journalist
  • David H. Gorski, M.D., Ph.D., FACS
    Managing Editor, Science-Based Medicine blog
    Leader, Breast Cancer Multidisciplinary Team, and
    Co-Leader, Breast Cancer Biology Program, Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute
  • Harriet Hall, M.D.
    Physician (ret.); Writer
  • Terence Hines, Ph.D.
    Department of Psychology, Pace University
  • Manfred Kroger, Ph.D.
    Professor of Food Science Emeritus, The Pennsylvania State University
  • William M. London, Ed.D., M.P.H.
    Professor, Department of Health Science
    California State University, Los Angeles
  • Eugenie V. Mielczarek
    Emeritus Professor of Physics, George Mason University
  • David Morrison, Ph.D.
    Director, Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe
    Former director, NASA Lunar Science Institute
    Senior scientist, NASA Astrobiology Institute
  • Jan Willem Nienhuys, Ph.D.
    Mathematician, Waalre, The Netherlands
  • Steven Novella, M.D.
    Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine
  • Jay Pasachoff, Ph.D
    Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy
    Williams College
  • Massimo Pigliucci, Ph.D.
    Graduate Center & Lehman College, City University of New York
  • Philip Plait, Ph.D.
    Astronomer, author
    Science blogger, Bad Astronomy
  • Gary P. Posner, M.D.
    Former contributing editor, Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine
  • Anthony R. Pratkanis, Ph.D.
    Professor of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Venki Ramakrishnan, Ph.D.
    Nobel Laureate (Chemistry, 2009)
    Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine (2007)
  • James Randi
    Founder and Chair, James Randi Educational Foundation
  • Wallace Sampson, M.D.
    Clinical Professor, Emeritus of Medicine, Stanford University
    Former Editor-in-Chief, Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine
  • Amardeo Sarma
    Senior Manager, NEC Laboratories Europe, Heidelberg
  • Brahm Segal, M.D.
    Roswell Park Cancer Institute
  • Robert Sheaffer
    Science writer
    Columnist, Skeptical Inquirer magazine
  • Eugenie C. Scott, Ph.D.
    Executive Director, National Center for Science Education
  • Simon Singh, Ph.D., MBE
    Author, Critic, Television Director and Producer
  • Victor Stenger, Ph.D.
    Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, University of Colorado
    Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy, University of Hawaii
  • Karen Stollznow, Ph.D.
    Linguist, writer
    Managing Editor, Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice
  • Carol Tavris, Ph.D.
    Psychologist and author
  • Mahlon W. Wagner, Ph.D.
    Professor Emeritus of Psychology, State University of New York at Oswego
  • David Willey, Ph.D.
    Department of Physics, University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown

This page was posted on August 20, 2011