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Judge Inexplicably Dismisses Walmart Homeopathy Fraud Lawsuit

The Center for Inquiry vowed to continue its efforts to end the deceptive marketing of homeopathic fake medicine, announcing that it will appeal the dismissal of its consumer protection lawsuit against Walmart.

On May 20, 2019, the Center for Inquiry (CFI), an organization dedicated to advancing reason and science, filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia against Walmart, accusing the world's largest retailer of committing wide-scale consumer fraud and endangering the health of its customers through its sale and marketing of pseudoscientific homeopathic drugs. The suit charged Walmart with misrepresenting homeopathy's safety and efficacy by hawking homeopathic products right alongside real, evidence-based medicine on its shelves and its online store, with no distinction made between them, under signs indicating them as treatments for particular ailments.

Exactly one year later, on May 20, 2020, Judge Florence Pan of the D.C. Superior Court dismissed CFI's case on extraordinarily dubious grounds.

First, Pan claimed that the Center for Inquiry lacked standing as a consumer protection organization, an assertion belied by CFI's more than four decades of work to educate the public about the dangers of pseudoscientific health products and advocate for stricter regulation of scientifically unproven health products with legal action, lobbying, and through outlets such as Skeptical Inquirer magazine and the website Quackwatch.

"The Center for Inquiry was explicitly founded for the very purpose on which Judge Pan says we have no standing," said Nick Little, CFI's vice president and general counsel. "Consumer protection is about more than recalls of unsafe toys. It's about stopping powerful corporations from abusing the trust of their customers and risking their health with deceptive practices. It's baffling to me that this judge refuses to see that."

Second, Pan asserted that CFI failed to identify Walmart's specific actions that lead to harm to consumers, which could not have been more clear: By making no distinction between real and fake medicine, Walmart is profiting off of consumers' confusion - confusion that is attested to in a recent survey on consumer attitudes toward homeopathic products and its retailers.

"Walmart literally shelves its useless homeopathic products under signs that read 'cold and flu,' many of them packaged with Walmart's own private label branding, right next to real medicine," said Little. "Walmart creates the confusion in consumers' minds, and then benefits from that confusion. How much clearer can it be?

"This dismissal is truly inexplicable. Hucksters do not always strut on a stagecoach and twirl mustaches. By taking advantage of their customers' trust to sell them fake medicine, Walmart is as bad as any 19th-century snake oil salesman bamboozling folks with 18th-century quackery. Consumers of the 21st-century deserve better, and we intend to carry on this fight."

Homeopathy is an 18th-century pseudoscience premised on the absurd, unscientific notion that a substance that causes a particular symptom is what should be ingested to alleviate it. Dangerous substances are diluted to the point that no trace of the active ingredient remains, but its alleged effectiveness rests on the nonsensical claim that water molecules have "memories" of the original substance. Homeopathic treatments have no effect whatsoever beyond that of a placebo.

CFI has advocated for tighter regulation of homeopathic products for many years, becoming the leading advocate for science-based medicine and against the proliferation of snake oil. In 2015, CFI was invited by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to provide expert testimony. As a result, the FTC declared in 2016 that the marketing of homeopathic products for specific diseases and symptoms is only acceptable if consumers are told: "(1) there is no scientific evidence that the product works and (2) the product's claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts." In 2018, the FDA announced a new "risk-based" policy of regulatory action against homeopathic products.

CFI is currently waging a similar suit in the District of Columbia against the country's biggest pharmacy chain, CVS, again challenging the presentation and marketing of homeopathic products in their stores. CFI is currently awaiting the judge's decision on CVS's Motion to Dismiss in that case.

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Previously:

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Posted on June 15, 2020


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