Homeopathic remedies in legal hot water in U.S. but face scant Canadian pushback

The nature of the U.S. legal system makes companies producing homeopathic remedies an easy target, say one Canadian corporate lawyer. Consumers in the U.S. frequently win cases based on "false claim" arguments.

Health Canada is taking more laissez-faire approach to homeopathic products

Clinically unproven claims by makers of homeopathic treatments make them targets for class action lawsuits in the U.S. (CBC)

Companies selling homeopathic remedies are settling multimillion-dollar lawsuits in the United States that allege their products are essentially worthless, but in Canada those same companies are spared the same legal pushback.

The Swiss-based Similasan Corporation is the latest to settle a class-action lawsuit. It has promised to refund American consumers who bought its products, which include remedies for colds and anxiety.

In their statement of claim, the litigants alleged homeopathic products "are nothing more than placebos." The settlement is subject to approval by a U.S. district court judge in California.

Homeopathy is based around the idea that "like cures like." For example, homeopaths contend that a highly diluted mixture containing poison ivy could be used to treat a poison ivy rash.

False and misleading claims

It's not the first time peddlers of commercial homeopathic remedies have ended up in court because of U.S. class-action lawyers.

In February, Hyland's Homeopathic arrived at a settlement after being accused of making "false and misleading claims" for its products for babies and children.

Organic grocery giant Whole Foods, meantime, faces a $5 million US class action in Florida that alleges its house brand homeopathic products are "worthless." 

Nutraceutical Corp. and Heel Inc. also face class-action suits, and the list goes on. Not every allegation is proven, yet these types of suits frequently end in settlements.

French homeopathic giant Boiron starting mailing out cheques in October 2015 as part of its $5 million US settlement.

A Canada-wide class action against the same company has been slowly working its way through a Quebec court since 2012. Lawyers allege consumers were "misled into purchasing a placebo product."

'Claims must be true'

Lawyer Andrea Grass is with the Montreal-based Consumer Law Group that launched the Boiron suit. It's won settlements from a coconut water company for its health claims, and three different shoe companies for footwear that promised to "tone" their wearers' legs and buttocks.

Grass said one of the goals of the Boiron suit is to hold homeopathic companies accountable.

"They'll be forced, when they make claims, for them to be true," she said.

But André Durocher, who has defended corporate clients in Canada, said he's not surprised there have been so many class actions against makers of homeopathic products in the U.S. compared to the situation here. 

"They're a more litigious society south of the border," he said.

Class actions are more likely to succeed in the U.S. because, unlike Canada, civil cases are heard by juries, which Durocher says tend to be more favourable to consumer suits.  And higher settlement amounts in the U.S. give class- action lawyers a greater incentive to launch suits.

U.S. regulators cracking down

In the end, U.S. regulators may save makers of homeopathic remedies from themselves by preventing companies from making unsubstantiated health claims that open them up to lawsuits.

In November 2016, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued a policy statement warning makers of these products that they must provide "competent and reliable scientific evidence" to back any health claims being made.

Since homeopathy isn't based on modern scientific principles, it's unclear how companies will adapt.

In Canada, only manufacturers of homeopathic cough, cold and flu remedies for children are required to provide "scientific evidence" if they make any health promises. But a recent investigation by CBC's Marketplace found that has yet to happen.