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‘Complementary and alternative medicine’

Humanists generally support scientists and researchers in their quest for knowledge and the improvement of human health and wellbeing. We believe that claims made about the medical benefits and efficacy of all medicines and medical treatments should be supported by a strong body of scientific evidence derived from trial data. Therefore, we reject the endorsement of so-called ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ (‘CAM’) for which there has been little, inconsistent or no evidence provided.

There are a wide variety of treatments that fall under the category of ‘CAM’, most notably homeopathy (a system which is based on treating the individual with highly diluted substances), acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, reiki, and herbalism. Much scientific evidence has been put forward refuting the claims about the medical efficacy of these treatments. Under the scrutiny of scientific trials these ‘remedies’ have consistently been shown to have no beneficial effect above that of a placebo. Therefore, to claim that any of these are a ‘cure’ or ‘effective’ (particularly in the context of the potential harms outlined in what follows) is unethical.

‘CAM’ is a largely unregulated area of medicine and often such remedies have not been thoroughly tested for their safety, potentially putting vulnerable people at risk. Furthermore, by encouraging patients to abandon conventional medicines on which their health depends, proponents of ‘CAM’ remedies may cause long-term, severe or even fatal damage to patients’ health.

It is Humanists UK’s position that ‘CAM’ treatments should not be funded by the state, and that no further public money should be spent researching such treatments when the evidence that they work no better than a placebo is overwhelming. We believe that pharmacists and other organisations who sell or promote ‘CAM’ products should have a duty to make clear that there is no scientific or clinical evidence base to support their efficacy. We support the guidelines issued by the Advertising Standards Authority and the Committees on Advertising Practice, which prohibit ‘CAM’ proponents from making false claims about their products when advertising. We believe that prescribing or promoting ‘CAM’ remedies is not a charitable activity and organisations that do this should not be able to register as charities.

We also support wider public health campaigns, that are often opposed by ‘CAM’ proponents, but that are strongly supported by scientific evidence. For example, we support programmes that offer vaccinations in schools, and the adding of fluoride to tap water and folic acid to flour.

What we’re doing

In May 2017, we submitted a response to a consultation by the Charity Commission on the registration of organisations that use or promote ‘CAM’ remedies as charities. In our submission, the BHA argued that ‘it is fundamental that charities must be able to demonstrate public benefit from their activities that is not offset by countervailing detriment.’ By failing to provide evidence that their treatments are efficacious in advancing health over and above taking no action or a placebo, organisations who promote ‘CAM’ remedies fall short of what is required for charitable status.

The Charity Commission consultation was launched in response to a challenge by the Good Thinking Society, set up by Humanists UK Patron Dr Simon Singh, over the Commission’s refusal to revoke charitable status from organisations advocating homeopathy as a lifesaving and health-promoting treatment. The Good Thinking Society campaigns against NHS funding of homeopathy and has successfully challenged the decision of several Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) – including in Liverpool and the Wirral – to finance these treatments. We have been supporting them in this work in, for example, encouraging our members and supporters to respond to CCG consultations. Good Thinking Society undertook a survey of UK NHS spending on homeopathy concluding it totalled between £3 million and £5 million. Since the campaign began, the number of NHS CCGs in England who fund these treatments has fallen from 14 to just four. Since October 2016, homeopathy is no longer funded outside of London and Bristol in England. The Good Thinking Society has also produced summaries of the available evidence of efficacy and risks for a range of ‘CAM’ therapies.

In the past, the BHA’s campaigning on ‘CAM’ remedies focused specifically on homeopathy. In February 2010, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee produced a report on the available evidence regarding homeopathy. It concluded that ‘The Government’s position on homeopathy is confused. On the one hand, it accepts that homeopathy is a placebo treatment. This is an evidence-based view. On the other hand, it funds homeopathy on the NHS without taking a view on the ethics of providing placebo treatments. We argue that this undermines the relationship between NHS doctors and their patients, reduces real patient choice and puts patients’ health at risk. The Government should stop allowing the funding of homeopathy on the NHS.’ The BHA welcomed the report and called for ‘public funds [to only be] spent on treatments that have been proven to work, and on research that is backed up by scientific evidence.’

In June 2010, the BHA responded to a consultation on new guidance for pharmacists produced by the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland which suggested that pharmacists have a duty to advise patients that there is ‘no scientific or clinical evidence base for the efficacy of homeopathic products, beyond a placebo effect.’ We also welcomed the British Medical Association’s (BMA) call to stop the NHS funding homeopathy at their 2010 annual conference, 2013 comments by England’s Chief Medical Officer that homeopathy is ‘rubbish’, and comments to the same effect by the outgoing Chief Scientific Advisor later that same year. APPHG Vice Chair Lord Taverne of Pimlico also challenged the ongoing funding in the House of Lords.

In 2011, we campaigned against an Early Day Motion advocating for further state funding for homeopathy, and in favour of an amendment putting across the opposite view. The eventual result was that the original EDM was withdrawn.

In 2008 state funding was granted for the first time to a Steiner school, namely Steiner Academy Hereford. From 2012-14 funding was further granted to three Steiner Free Schools, in Frome, Exeter and Bristol. In 2012 the BHA revealed that Steiner Academy Hereford gives homeopathy to students for ailments such as burns, and uses a science curriculum book that promotes belief in homeopathy. Subsequent BHA work on Steiner schools has led to no further Free School proposals being granted state funding.

Get involved

Humanists UK consults with its members on ‘CAM’ and many other scientific and ethical issues. We welcome your comments on these subjects, which help us to form our campaigns. To date, members have rarely expressed opposition to our campaigns against the state funding of ‘CAM’.

You can also research and take up these issues with your MP and/or local authority, or write to a newspaper. Our Take Action Toolkit has advice on how to go about this.

You can support Humanists UK campaigns by becoming a member. Campaigns cost money – quite a lot of money – and we need your financial support. Instead or in addition, you can make a donation to Humanists UK.

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