On a recent afternoon in midtown Manhattan, I popped into a chain drug store and picked up some $12 sleep tablets whose label promises both “courage and peace of mind” and “focus when ungrounded.” I also got a $17 tube of cream offering “rapid, soothing relief of pain” from conditions as varied as arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and bug bites. Both products sat on shelves alongside familiar drugs such as Tylenol and Claritin, which regulators have carefully scrutinized for safety and effectiveness. The half- dozen products I bought—labelled as "homeopathic"—aren't vetted for either.
Homeopathic remedies are based on an idea, developed at the end of the 1700s, positing that the substances responsible for medical problems, when delivered in highly diluted doses, can cure diseases instead. Since then, homeopathy has had staying power. In 1938, a U.S. senator (and homeopath) named Royal Copeland bolstered the practice by passing a law classifying homeopathic treatments as drugs. And in the 1970s, a wave of interest in New Age and alternative medicine again brought homeopathy to the fore. Scientists now agree—overwhelmingly—that the remedies don't work. But each year, billions of dollars worth of homeopathic products are sold in the U.S.