RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
The Food and Drug Administration is saying today it plans to regulate homeopathic drugs much more tightly. These drugs are both popular and controversial. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now with the details. Rob, welcome.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Nice to be here.
SUAREZ: First, as a reminder, what is homeopathy? And how does it supposedly work?
STEIN: Yeah. Ray, homeopathy is an alternative form of medicine that started in Germany at the end of the 18th century. And it's based on an idea known as like cures like. And the idea is that if you give people very tiny amounts, trace amounts of something that can cause disease, it could actually cure disease. And homeopathy's become increasingly popular in the United States. It's now estimated to be about a $3 billion industry, selling products for everything from the common cold to cancer.
SUAREZ: It's been controversial for a long time, but why?
STEIN: Well, a lot of doctors and many scientists and scientific organizations basically say, look. This stuff doesn't work. There's no scientific evidence to support the idea that this idea actually works. And that people are essentially wasting their money. I mean, the critics will go as far as to call this stuff snake oil and call the companies that sell these products snake oil salesmen. And the concern also is that beyond just wasting your money, this stuff could be dangerous if it gets contaminated with something or if it's given in doses that are too high, or if people with serious conditions like cancer or heart disease take this stuff and it doesn't work and they are not taking the stuff that will really help them.
SUAREZ: Well, this is a product that's created to be put into your body. Why wasn't it regulated in the past?
STEIN: Yeah. So the FDA basically has taken what it's called sort of a hands-off approach to homeopathy. It's basically said that, look. It's not going to regulate these products like other drugs. It's not going to require these products to go through the formal FDA approval process to prove that they work, to prove that they're safe.
That said, you know, the FDA did on occasion take action when there were some really serious concerns. Like, there were some products that were being sold to soothe teething babies that ended up containing a substance known as belladonna, which can cause seizures and even deaths. And it went after some products - zinc-containing products that caused some people to lose their sense of smell. There were even some products identified that contained strychnine, which is a toxic chemical that is used to poison rats.
SUAREZ: So the change is - what's the FDA saying it's going to do now that it didn't before?
STEIN: Yeah. So the FDA basically is saying it's going to take a whole new approach to regulating homeopathy and homeopathic products. It's basically going to start to treat these products like any other drugs. Now, that said, the FDA has made a point of saying, look. We're only going to go after situations where we're really concerned, situations like where products are being marketed to really vulnerable groups, like babies or young children or the elderly, or if these products are being marketed for serious conditions that people might not be getting treated for otherwise, or if it's being given in some unusual way, like being injected or something like that.
SUAREZ: Now, normally it's really hard to get a drug approved. And if you make health claims about any substance, it's really hard to get past federal scrutiny. Does this mean homeopathic products are going to be banned?
STEIN: No. No, the FDA made a point of saying, look. You know, it's not like we're going to pull all this stuff off the market tomorrow or require all these drugs to go through a formal FDA approval process. In fact, many of the products that are on the market are going to stay on the market because the FDA knows these products are popular. People swear by them. But they're putting the industry on notice that when there's a problem they're going to go after it hard, and they're going to go after it fast.
SUAREZ: That's NPR's Rob Stein. Rob, thanks a lot.
STEIN: Sure. Nice to be here.
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