An Open Letter to Alliance Boots

This was sent to Skepchick yesterday, so I thought I’d post it in solidarity. I can only add: WORD, Boots. WTF.

An Open Letter to Alliance Boots

The Boots brand is synonymous with health care in the United Kingdom. Your website speaks proudly about your role as a health care provider and your commitment to deliver exceptional patient care. For many people, you are their first resource for medical advice; and their chosen dispensary for prescription and non-prescription medicines. The British public trusts Boots.

However, in evidence given recently to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, you admitted that you do not believe homeopathy to be efficacious. Despite this, homeopathic products are offered for sale in Boots pharmacies – many of them bearing the trusted Boots brand.

Not only is this two-hundred-year-old pseudo-therapy implausible, it is scientifically absurd. The purported mechanisms of action fly in the face of our understanding of chemistry, physics, pharmacology and physiology. As you are aware, the best and most rigorous scientific research concludes that homeopathy offers no therapeutic effect beyond placebo, but you continue to sell these products regardless because “customers believe they work”. Is this the standard you set for yourselves?

The majority of people do not have the time or inclination to check whether the scientific literature supports the claims of efficacy made by products such as homeopathy. We trust brands such as Boots to check the facts for us, to provide sound medical advice that is in our interest and supply only those products with a demonstrable medical benefit.

We don’t expect to find products on the shelf at our local pharmacy which do not work.

Not only are these products ineffective, they can also be dangerous. Patients may delay seeking proper medical assistance because they believe homeopathy can treat their condition. Until recently, the Boots website even went so far as to tell patients that “after taking a homeopathic medicine your symptoms may become slightly worse,” and that this is “a sign that the body’s natural energies have started to counteract the illness”. Advice such as this directly encourages patients to wait before seeking real medical attention, even when their condition deteriorates.

We call upon Boots to withdraw all homeopathic products from your shelves. You should not be involved in the sale of ineffective products, because your customers trust you to do what is right for their health. Surely you agree that your commitment to excellent patient care is better served by supplying only those products whose claims can be substantiated by rigorous scientific research? Or do you really believe that Boots should be in the business of selling placebos to the sick and the injured?

The support lent by Boots to this quack therapy contributes directly to its acceptance as a valid medical treatment by the British public, acceptance it does not warrant and support it does not deserve. Please do the right thing, and remove this bogus therapy from your shelves.

Yours sincerely,
Merseyside Skeptics Society

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. This sort of letter is exactly what’s needed. I’m sure Boots are receiving hundreds of letters of support from nice middle-class housewives who swear by homeopathy, so British skeptics need to be making their voices heard now as well.

    This morning there was a shocking piece on a big breakfast TV show in which the pro-homeopathy side was was taken by a homeopath who is also a medical doctor, and the ‘balance’ provided by a journalist who didn’t even know what homeopathy was. The media have had mixed reactions, with some tabloids like the Daily Mail coming out against Boots, which is interesting.

    The only part of the open letter I question is “you admitted that you do not believe homeopathy to be efficacious”. I am not sure that’s the case, my understanding is that he said there wasn’t evidence either way, which is not the same.

    Other than that point of clarification, great letter. I’m planning one myself but from a commercial angle. Not that Boots will be swayed by any one point, but weight of numbers is what’s needed here.

  2. I was thinking that the left side of the pond could use a similar letter to:
    Wal Mart
    Anyone have a favorite target?

  3. I wonder what the profit margin is on homeopathy (i.e. would it really hurt Boots’ sales numbers if they stopped selling it?)

    Sadly, for a company in the business of making money, it’s all about selling the goods the customers are looking for, preferably with as much profit tacked on as the customer is willing to pay for it. Whether or not that product is any good is not really your concern but that of the manufacturer.

    In other words, while some people look to boots for medical advice, most look there to buy stuff they consider medication. If they suddenly stopped selling homeopathy, those people looking for it would simply spend their money elsewhere.

    It’s not really up to Boots to tell people what’s real medicine and what’s not. There already are organisations that deal with that issue. It’s up to the government to actually take their guidelines and turn them into policy.

    On the other hand, Boots don’t have to sell alternative crap using the lies from the quacks either. They can sell you crap if you’re willing to pay for it, but don’t have to advertise the crap.

  4. While I agree with the point of the letter and would sign my name to any effort to stop the sale of such things here in the states. There is also a part of me that honestly believes it’s a personal choice.

    If you are unwilling to read a label for yourself and consider the basic probability that if this stuff really worked then no one would have the problem (if this homeopathic diet pill were real no one would be over weight). What you do to your body out of sheer ignorance is your choice, and I can’t blame anyone for making money on it.

    That said if I suspected an individual of neglecting serious medical attention for a child under their care in favor of homeopathy I would feel compelled to act on that childs behalf.

  5. Seeing how homeopathy is so eager to be treated like actual medicine, I think in a sense, one of the best possible outcomes would be for homeopathy to in fact be treated like actual medicine. Immediately followed by a complete ban on anything homeopathic until the industry has completed all the necessary testing and approval that any other drug has to go through.

    It would suddenly become illegal to sell anything homeopathic until it had been approved (which would never happen). Now that would be awesome …

  6. I think the issue is more that Boots sell it without any information – if you ask the pharmacist in your average Boots what’s in it, they won’t say “nothing” or “here’s what the claim is”, they’ll say “50c arnica” or whatever. Plus the Boots website has some very dodgy info on it.

  7. @jabell2r:

    While I agree in theory that individual should be allowed to make their own choices, I also believe that this is one of the areas where the government has to step in.

    I live in Canada, so I have “free” healthcare (paid for, of course, by my taxes). If an individual gets sick and chooses homeopathy (or any other quack cure) other than going to the doctor or hospital, they will just get sicker. Eventually they will end up in the hospital and hence cost the system more than they would have had the illness been caught early. Allowing quack cures to flourish ultimately costs the system money.

    Now, we can’t legislate people going to the doctor when they’re sick, and I can’t legislate risky behaviour (extreme sports, unprotected sex, etc.) but this is something, at least, that we can handle.

    In Ontario right now there’s a bill that’s proposing that Naturopathic Doctors be allowed to prescribe drugs, like a real medical doctor. Every skeptic I know is fighting this, but sadly, it may come to pass (it already has in British Columbia). More patients are going to suffer for it, and that affects everyone.

  8. Rebecca and/or Tracy can you help me out here? Is Boots a store like WalMart or Walgreens? Or is it more like the corner apothecary? Being from this side of the pond, I don’t have a context for where these watery products fit into their overall scheme. Do they represent 0.001% of their products or 10%?

    Some background would help me understand the subject matter.


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