The government should withdraw National Health Service funding and stop the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency from licensing homeopathic medicines, a group of ministers has concluded.

Homeopathy is based on the principle that giving highly diluted medicines to patients will trigger the body’s own healing processes, and supporters argue that this has the same effect – if not a greater one – than if the active ingredient were given in higher, ‘approved’ doses.

But following a review of evidence currently available, the Science and Technology Committee concluded that homeopathy is not effective and that explanations for why homeopathy would work are “scientifically implausible”.

Furthermore, the Committee points out that while the government acknowledges there is no evidence that homeopathy works beyond the placebo effect, it still does not intend to review its policies on funding the practice on the NHS.

The Committee believes that as homeopathy is a placebo treatment the government should have a policy on prescribing placebos, but it says the government is “reluctant” to do so as it would mean addressing the ethical issues surrounding dishing out ghost pills to patients, particularly as some degree of deception is involved.

Moreover, it says prescribing pure placebos is “bad medicine”, as their effects are unreliable and unpredictable and so “cannot form the sole basis of any treatment on the NHS”. In addition, prescribing placebos does not fit well with the government’s patient choice agenda, it points out.

The report also concludes that the MHRA should not allow homeopathic product labels to make medical claims without evidence of efficacy and that, as they cannot be classed as medicines, the Agency should no longer dish out licences for homeopathic products.

It cites strong concerns over the introduction of the National Rules Scheme in 2006, which basically enables products to carry medical indications ‘proven’ by study reports and literature, without the requirement of randomised controlled trials as is necessary for medicines’ claims.

Commenting on the inquiry, Chairman of the Committee Phil Willis MP said: “We were seeking to determine whether the government's policies on homeopathy are evidence based on current evidence. They are not”.

“It sets an unfortunate precedent for the Department of Health to consider that the existence of a community which believes that homeopathy works is 'evidence' enough to continue spending public money on it,” he said, and stressed “this also sends out a confused message, and has potentially harmful consequences”.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society has welcomed the report’s findings. “We are delighted that the Committee has agreed with our recommendation that the MHRA should not allow homeopathic product labels to make claims without evidence of efficacy,” said its Chief Scientific Advisor Jayne Lawrence.

“The Society believes that all medicines available on the NHS should be efficacious and give value for money. This is important, not least because there is the potential for funding of conventional medicines to be compromised by the use of homeopathic products”.

Furthermore, she said the Society is pleased that the report “agrees with our conclusion that there is no evidence to support the clinical efficacy of homoeopathic products beyond a placebo effect, and no scientific basis for homoeopathy”.

Dismissing placebo effect?
But the British Homeopathic Association argues that homeopathy has been part of the health service since its inception helping hundreds of thousands of patients, and said it “emphatically believe patients should retain their right to access homeopathy on the NHS”.

It argues that the recommendations of the Science and Technology report “fail to acknowledge the fact that research evidence for homeopathy does exist, and dismisses patient outcomes as placebo effect”, and it criticises the Committee for making recommendations to government “in isolation of context and apparently without concern about its impact on patients and the NHS”.

According to BHA chief executive Cristal Sumner: “It does seem an irresponsible way of decision-making for a Committee of four voting members to draw conclusions that impact the health and welfare of thousands of patients from just four and half hours of verbal testimony on three distinct topics and from a number of written submissions that were each limited to just 3000 words”.