Despite a lack of supportive studies, the drugs are gaining popularity. A 101-year-old L.A. firm benefits from the trend.
Jay Borneman braced for the worst when ABC’s “20/20” aired a segment in January claiming to expose homeopathic medicines as little more than a scam.
The negative publicity, he figured, would result in a flurry of angry phone calls, harsh letters and a drop in business at his 101-year-old Los Angeles firm, Standard Homeopathic Co.
But the outrage never materialized; Standard proved immune.
In fact, in the days and weeks since the show aired, sales have continued to climb at the company, which markets its products under the Hyland’s and Standard brand names.
“The punch line is, nobody cared,” said Borneman, the firm’s chief executive. People go with what works for them and take the kinds of clinical studies cited by “20/20” and other critics with “a grain of salt,” he added.
They must. Although “there’s not a lot of definitive science” showing homeopathic remedies to be effective, in the words of Nutrition Business Journal editor Grant Ferrier, sales growth in the $400-million market segment has been very strong.
Standard itself has logged annual double-digit revenue gains for the last decade, reaching almost $40 million in 2003, according to industry estimates. The company declined to disclose specific sales or profit figures.
Homeopathic products — which stand distinct from dietary supplements such as ephedra — use minute quantities of whatever is causing an illness to try to cure it.
For instance, microscopic amounts of caffeine (or Coffea cruda) are used to help overcome sleeplessness. Red onion (Allium cepa) is used to combat tearing eyes and nasal discharge. Syrup of Ipecac (Ipecacuanha) is used to treat nausea and vomiting.
Much of Standard’s growth, Borneman said, has come from the dozen or so items it sells in mainstream outlets such as Rite Aid Corp., Walgreen Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. That’s a big switch from the past, when homeopathic remedies were peddled mainly in co-ops and health-food stores.
But breaking into these large retailers has meant that Standard and other old-line companies have had to change the way they market their goods, which generally fetch $6 to $10 per bottle. Products once sold in plain white containers — with their scientific names and dilutions marked with Xs and Cs on the label — are now getting splashier graphics and consumer-friendly names. Among them: Bumps n’ Bruises, Seasonal Allergy and Calms Forte.
Even the size of Standard’s packaging has been reshaped to fit on shelves alongside other popular over-the-counter remedies. Drugstores had complained “that our box was too big and needed to fit into the Tylenol footprint,” Borneman said.
The payoff has been considerable. Sales of one of Standard’s most popular products, Teething Tablets for babies, surged 44% last year, according to Information Resources Inc., to $2 million. That put it a close second behind the bestselling medicine for that condition, Del Laboratories Inc.’s Orajel.
Homeopathy traces its roots to late 18th century Germany, where a physician, chemist and linguist named Samuel Hahnemann read in an herbal text that a certain kind of tree bark could be used to treat malaria. Hahnemann took some of the bark and observed that a large dose of it gave him malaria-like symptoms. That led him to the notion that a substance can create symptoms as well as relieve them. He soon began experimenting with other remedies.
Centuries later, homeopathic medicines have become household staples in Europe and have been touted by, among others, Prince Charles.
In the U.S., such products have been in use for more than a century. But they have gained steam in recent years, as more consumers have tried to treat minor medical conditions at home. “In general,” editor Ferrier said, “the trend is moving more toward self care and avoiding the doctor.”
That’s somewhat ironic for Standard, considering that the company was founded in 1903 by a group of Los Angeles physicians who wanted to prescribe homeopathic remedies to their patients but couldn’t find a ready supply of them west of the Mississippi.
The first compounding pharmacy operated in the basement of the doctors’ downtown office. George Hyland, the brand’s namesake, purchased the company in 1910, expanding its manufacturing capability and its staff, including hiring Cecil Craig in 1928, the grandfather of Borneman’s partner, co-owner Mark Phillips.
Borneman’s family has been in the business even longer. His grandfather, John A. Borneman, founded his own homeopathic company, which was sold in 1983 to French homeopathic giant Boiron.
Through its long history, Standard has kept a low profile.
Since the late 1960s, it has occupied the same set of dilapidated buildings in the Harbor Gateway area. The assembly lines for its 1,250 products are modest, with a handful of workers in hairnets and lab coats mixing botanical ingredients with water and alcohol. They then soak them for weeks at a time before filtering begins to create the “mother tincture.”
This substance is then diluted several times before being mixed for eight hours with an electric mortar and pestle. The result is a sweet lactose powder, which dissolves under the tongue. The powder is then pushed into tiny pill molds and put on large racks to dry before being dispensed into bottles.
This long, involved process is considered crucial. “If you merely dilute the ingredients,” Phillips said, “you don’t get the same effect.”
Borneman acknowledges that homeopathy bucks conventional medicine, in part because it seems to become more effective as the dose is lowered.
“It’s like chamomile tea,” he said. “If you drink a little of it, it has a calming effect; if you drink a lot, it has a stimulating effect.”
Whatever the case, manufacturers do not have to prove that these products work. Rather, they simply have to meet certain manufacturing standards for purity and strength under Food and Drug Administration guidelines. FDA rules also require that companies such as Standard clearly label which conditions or symptoms their remedies are designed to treat.
Unlike their much stronger herbal counterparts, homeopathic products have caused few adverse effects and resulted in no reported deaths. Beginning in 1938, any medicine found in homeopathy’s official compendium — the U.S. Pharmacopia — was recognized as safe under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
Wayne Jonas, director of the nonprofit Samueli Institute, which conducts research on homeopathy for the National Institutes of Health, said the scientific community was still divided over the efficacy of such medicines.
Jonas pointed out that some clinical trials conducted by universities and other research organizations have shown that homeopathic remedies are good at shortening the common cold and treating seasonal allergies, infectious diarrhea and postoperative bruising. But trials on other conditions, including migraines, have found homeopathic remedies no better than a placebo.
None of the controversy seems to bother Frances Nicolais.
Having long ago treated a broken toe with arnica (a plant whose blossoms are used to make medicine), she now takes the remedy regularly for shoulder ailments and other muscle soreness. The massage therapist uses other homeopathic medicines for itchy eyes, sleeplessness and postnasal drip.
Though she’s not exactly sure how or why, Nicolais said, homeopathy “definitely works for me.”