CVS, Homeopathy, and the DC Court System — What’s Happening?

September 7, 2018

Earlier this summer I filed a consumer protection lawsuit in the D.C. Superior Court against CVS Pharmacy, Inc., alleging that their stores commit fraud by displaying homeopathic products alongside science based medicine both in their brick-and-mortar stores and online. The wheels of justice turn notoriously slowly, so I wanted to take this opportunity to fill you in on what is happening, and to answer some of the questions we’ve received on this lawsuit.

  1. Where is the lawsuit?

The lawsuit has been filed, and CFI has been in discussions with CVS’s attorneys regarding this. Further to these discussions, CFI delayed “serving” the suit upon CVS. That’s the process by which you officially notify the opposing party that you are suing them, and the court that you have notified the opposing party. That’s when the clock starts running for CVS to file a response. The complaint has now been served on CVS.

As a result of our discussions with CVS’s attorneys, we have arranged a meeting with the defendants to have face to face talks about whether there is a possible settlement. We have agreed to delay deadlines in this matter until after this meeting, which will be taking place later this month.

CFI remains committed to this legal action, and hopes to ensure through it that consumers are protected from sham products masquerading as medical treatments.

  1. Where does this lawsuit impact?

The suit is filed in the District of Columbia, under D.C. law. A ruling in the case will therefore cover those CVS Pharmacy stores located in D.C., and the sales by CVS’s online store to residents of D.C. It is our sincere hope that CVS will, once the case is resolved, look at the resulting required action and implement it across the country. If they choose not to do that, we will examine consumer protection statues in other states in order to seek to compel a similar result in other jurisdictions.

  1. Are you trying to get homeopathy taken off the shelves?

CFI doesn’t think that stores should be selling fake medicine, and homeopathy is fake medicine. However, according to the federal government, homeopathic products are legal. The Food and Drug Administration says they can be sold. CFI doesn’t ask in its complaint for a specific solution – our aim is to have the court impose an injunction requiring CVS to stop its deceptive behavior. The exact actions that CVS would take after this are up to them, provided that the deceptive behaviors were to cease. CFI, of course, has suggestions. One of those suggestions would be physically separating homeopathic products in the store, and putting up warning signs about the products’ nature in that section. A similar solution could occur online.

  1. Why homeopathy not chiropractic or reiki healing?

CFI takes a stand against “alternative medicine” of all types. And it’s a big battle. Yes – there are some types of medical woo that have a more immediate harmful impact than homeopathy. Take a look at the website to see examples (including of those killed by reliance on homeopathy).

But homeopathy is a special kind of nonsense. It doesn’t and it can’t work. It’s based on three utterly ludicrous “principles,” and was developed as a theory before we even understood the Germ Theory of Medicine. According to homeopathy’s Law of Similars, “like cures like” – if something causes a symptom in the body, it can be used to treat that symptom. It is fortunate modern medicine doesn’t treat gunshot wounds and rabid dog bites in this fashion. Homeopathy also is based on the Law of Infinitesimal Dose, which states that homeopathic products get stronger the more they are diluted, provided in between each dilution they are struck against an elastic surface, such as the leather cover of a book. And homeopathy seemingly acknowledges that is more than a little ridiculous to say that you can dilute something to a 200C dilution – one part “active ingredient” to 10400 parts water – and make it stronger. Given that there are 1080 atoms in the known universe, there’s not a single atom of the original ingredient left. In fact, there wasn’t one left one hell of a lot of dilutions ago. So homeopaths tell us that water has a memory. It can remember what was dissolved into it even after there’s nothing left. As Tim Minchin asks, how is it that water doesn’t remember “all the poo its had in it?

So homeopathy is ludicrous. But it is sold in retail stores, and sold alongside real medicine as an alternative. And Americans are buying billions of dollars of this stuff every year. Stores need to stop presenting it as a real alternative to science based medicine. We’ll do our best on other forms of alternative medicine too, but this is the start.

  1. Why are you suing in D.C. not nationwide?

That’s the nature of the law here. The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission have the nationwide responsibility here, and simply aren’t acting to protect consumers. But states also have the ability to protect their own citizens and residents. We picked D.C. because I am based here and am licensed to practice here. And, more importantly, the D.C. consumer protection statute explicitly allows non-profits such as CFI to act as private attorney generals – to sue on behalf of the general public to protect the general public.

  1. What are you asking for?

Overall: an end to the deception. But we ask the court for a series of things. The first is that CVS should stop violating the law, and be enjoined from doing it in the future. As I said above, the method they chose going forward isn’t something CFI can decide, but we can certainly provide advice. The D.C. law also provides for monetary damages in the amount of either triple the actual harm or $1,500 per violation, whichever is larger. So it is easy to see how this could quickly become a very large amount of money, money which CFI would use to fund its legal and educational campaign against pseudoscience and sham medicines.

  1. What’s your case in a nutshell?

D.C. states that consumers have an enforceable right to accurate information from retailers. CVS knows homeopathy is bunk, yet it places Oscillococcinum on the shelf under a large sign reading “cold and flu” alongside medicine like Tylenol Nighttime. It is impossible for them to argue that they aren’t telling customers Oscillococcinum is a treatment for cold and flu. Similarly, online, they nest their homeopathic products alongside real medicine. If you search for flu treatment, some of the products brought up are homeopathic, with no, or legally inadequate, warnings. If CVS is going to sell this junk, they should be honest with their customers about it.

  1. But what about my St John’s Wort?

Homeopathy isn’t a catch all term for alternative medicine. It doesn’t include herbal remedies. The lawsuit specifically targets homeopathic products, as described above. It won’t impact the sale of supplements and herbal/natural products.

  1. Why CVS, not Walgreens or Whole Foods or the homeopathic manufacturers?

Everyone has to start somewhere. CVS is the country’s largest retail pharmacy. It also prides itself in being a partner in its customers’ health decisions. For example, it stopped selling tobacco products because it felt it was incongruent for a health store to sell unhealthy products. So we felt CVS would be open to discussion on this. Other stores also retail homeopathic products in different ways. Picking CVS doesn’t mean we approve of other companies’ practices, and doesn’t mean we won’t sue them in the future after a successful result here.

You can read the complaint here. And watch our two minute video below.