[There is an update at the bottom of this webpage, which I will keep updated as further information arrives]
Last week, I discovered that two UK homeopathic pharmacies (Helios and Ainsworths) were selling anti-vaccination books. This is no surprise, since homeopaths have a track record of engaging with anti-vaccine views as found by Schmidt & Ernst in 2002 (as one example), and on occasion have been found to be providing ineffective homeopathic alternatives to vaccines in the UK. Concern has been expressed that regulators are not taking this issue seriously enough.
This is the sort of book they were selling (several were for sale).
Pharmacies in the UK are regulated by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), they exist to ‘protect, promote and maintain the health, safety and wellbeing of members of the public by upholding standards and public trust in pharmacy.’ The GPhC has stated in 2011 that they would continue to monitor the situation in one pharmacy after the selling of homeopathic malaria prevention treatments: ‘the information gathered as part of the (recent Newsnight) investigation including the original complaint may be taken into account if we receive any further complaints about the pharmacy professional in the future.’
I was therefore hopeful that action, or at the very least an investigation, might happen when I complained to the GPhC about the two registered pharmacy premises who were selling the books, and additionally I noted that a homeopathic preparation (pertussin homeopathic remedy) that could be used as a homeopathic vaccine was being sold by one.
Despite being pretty much an absolutist on free speech, I feel this is appropriate. That is, I do not have a problem with the publication or selling of anti-vaccine literature from bookshops, my only concern is that registered healthcare professionals are supplying this material from registered premises.
In my opinion, the selling of anti-vaccine books by a registered pharmacist/pharmacy is incompatible with the Code of Conduct for Pharmacists.
I have received a prompt response from the GPhC this morning to my complaint. They have not investigated my complaint, but have looked at whether it sits in their area of jurisdiction.
The response raises a number of issues for me since it dropped through the postbox this morning:
1. How can someone be fit to practice as a pharmacist (which includes knowledge) and knowingly sell an anti-vaccination book?
2. Is selling an anti-vaccine book from a pharmacy purely a commercial matter? I might agree if I had complained about hair dryers or cameras. Does the pharmacy regulator not have a role in public health? Remember they exist to ‘protect, promote and maintain the health, safety and wellbeing of members of the public’. Does this mean anything if pharmacists can sell anti-vaccine books? Can they sell cigarettes on this basis too?
3. There is a hole in regulation. Selling anti-vaccine books, and selling homeopathic remedies that are suggested in those books is tantamount to putting an indication on the remedy.
4. There is no evidence that a registrant is acting outside of their competency. Isn’t a pharmacist in control of a registered premises? If so, isn’t the fact the book is on sale evidence they are dangerously ill-informed, and a threat to public health?
5. There is no evidence they holding themselves to be anti-vaccine specialists. I am not sure that is important. I was not making the accusation they are anti-vaccine specialists in my complaint, but implying their are vaccine ignorant. Selling anti-vaccine books shows a startling lack of knowledge of immunity, the science of vaccination and public health. How is that compatible with professional registration as a pharmacist?
I’m not a fundamentalist on homeopathy, I can see how differing health beliefs of patients might lead them to use such products, despite the lack of plausible mechanisms, and evidence for their effectiveness. I also have some issues on how pharmacists are targeted as suppliers of homeopathy by skeptics, when they may well be employees with little to no control over stock in their store (unlike their superintendent pharmacists). However, in this case it seems clear-cut to me that products dangerous to public health are on sale from a registered pharmacy, which is under the control of a pharmacist.
And there is apparently nothing to be done about it.
NOTE: A big thanks to eagle-eyed Rob who spotted this material in the first place
Ainsworths homeopathic pharmacy (purveyors of blank pills by royal appointment) stocks some… *interesting* books http://t.co/J636tipLkJ
— Rob (@PencilBloke) August 20, 2015
UPDATE 11th September 2015
The GPhC have noticed this post and treated it as a complaint, and combined it with a review of my initial complaint. A Fitness to Practise investigation into these concerns has been initiated, an apology was issued about the initial letter’s inaccuracies, and the GPhC are identifying improvements that can be made to the initial assessment of concerns. They have promised to keep me updated about progress on the investigation. This is reassuring news.