Unethical and Ignorant Behavior of Pharmacists

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
July 19, 2011

Most pharmacists who work in retail pharmacies have a serious potential conflict of interest. On the one hand, they are professionals, expected to be knowledgeable about drugs and to dispense them in a responsible and ethical manner. On the other hand, their income depends on the sale of products. Before the FDA’s OTC (Over-the-Counter) Drug Review drove most of the ineffective ingredients out of OTC drug products, few pharmacists protested or attempted to protect their customers from wasting money on products that did not work.

Today nearly all pharmacies carry irrationally formulated dietary supplements, and many stock dubious herbal and homeopathic products in addition to standard drugs. Chain drugstores are more likely to do so than individually owned stores. Hospital pharmacies are less prone to do so. In the late 1990s, some pharmacy trade publications—most notably the now-defunct Natural Pharmacist—suggested that “natural products” offered opportunities to make up for prescription drug revenues lost as a result of managed care and other cost-containment programs. Two pharmacy suppliers aligned with this trend were The JAG Group of San Clemente, California [1] and HealthTrust Alliance, of Lawrenceville, Georgia [2], both of which offered comprehensive programs through which pharmacists could market dietary supplements and herbal and homeopathic products to their customers. I thought that these programs were appalling because (a) few common ailments can be helped with dietary supplements or herbal products, (b) nutrient depletion related to drug use is not common, (c) homeopathic products are worthless, (d) pharmacists are not qualified or legally permitted to be “natural healthcare practitioners, and (e) recommending products for hundreds of ailments would be outside the scope of pharmacy practice, constitute the illegal practice of medicine, and violate state laws against theft by deception. As far as I can tell, neither of these programs is active today, but the percentage of pharmacists who sell dubious products has increased considerably.

In the mid-1980s, two dietitians examined the labels of vitamin products at five pharmacies, three groceries, and three health-food stores in New Haven. Products were considered appropriate if they contained between 50% and 200% the U.S. RDA and no more than 100% of others for which Estimated Safe and Adequate Daily Dietary Intakes existed. Only 16 out of 105 (15%) of the multivitamin/mineral products met these criteria [3]. Although current data on the percentage of irrational formulations in pharmacies is not available, everyone I have ever visited carried lots of them.

Pharmacy compounding is another problematic area. Compounding is the creation of a drug product by mixing ingredients. Compounding has legitimate uses and is most often done honestly at physician request. However, some pharmacies compound drugs that have little or no rational use, including some that are potentially dangerous and lack FDA approval [4]. Two such product categories are chelating agents [5] and bioidentical hormones [6], both of which have been the target of FDA warnings.

Widespread Ignorance

If asked directly whether an ineffective product is worthwhile, most pharmacists will answer to the best of their ability. However, many surveys have shown that pharmacists are poorly informed about herbal products, many types of dietary supplements, and homeopathic products.

  • In 1985, reporters from Consumer Reports magazine visited 30 drugstores in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and California. The reporters complained of feeling tired or nervous, and asked whether a vitamin product might help. Seventeen were sold a vitamin product and one was sold an amino acid preparation. (None of the products had any ingredient that was effective against fatigue or nervousness.) Only 9 of the 30 pharmacists suggested that a doctor be consulted [7].
  • In 1987, two pharmacy school professors sent a questionnaire to 1000 pharmacists in the Detroit metropolitan area and received 197 responses. Among the 116 who identified their five most-common reasons for recommending vitamins or minerals, 66 (56%) listed fatigue and 57 (49%) listed stress [8]. (Neither reason is valid.) Homeopathic products have no therapeutic value [9] But in response to a question about homeopathy, 27.4% said it was “useful,” 18.3% judged it “useless,” and 54.3% “didn’t know.” [10]
  • A study published in 1993 found that 47% of pharmacy students at two Philadelphia schools were taking supplements. The study demonstrated that many of them mistakenly believed that supplements could improve energy and relieve stress and that a year of school had only a modest influence on these beliefs [11].
  • Among 533 Minnesota pharmacists who were asked whether they used or recommended one or more of 34 herbal or natural products, 282 (53%) reported that they had personally done so, 240 (45%) reported that they had recommended them to family members, and 432 (81%) reported that they had recommended them to patients. The most popular choices were echinacea, aloe, zinc, glucosamine, chondroitin, ginkgo biloba, garlic, melatonin, chromium picolinate, ginseng, and St. John’s wort [12]. (Except for melatonin, these substances have little or no practical use.)
  • A study at the University of Minnesota School of Pharmacy published in 2006 found that only 26% of faculty members and 3% of senior PharmD students considered homeopathy ineffective and 23% of faculty members and 35% of students said they had no opinion [13].

Despite considerable effort, I have located no evidence that pharmacy educators generally perceive misbeliefs about ineffective products as a problem area and are trying to produce students who think clearly about these products.

What Happened to Ethics?

Merlin Nelson, M.D., Pharm.D., coauthor of the above-mentioned 1987 survey, has asked pharmacists why they promote and sell food supplements to healthy individuals who don’t need them. He concluded:

The most common reason is greed. Advertising creates a demand that the pharmacist can supply and make a profit. “If I don’t sell them, they’ll just go to my competition down the street,” is a common response. Pharmacists are apparently more interested in a sale than in the patient’s welfare. . . .

Rather than just recommending a multivitamin to patients concerned about obtaining enough vitamins in their diet, pharmacists should offer sound nutritional advice or provide referrals to experts in nutrition such as registered dietitians. [14]

In 1988, James T. O’Donnell, PharmD, a pharmacy professor at the Rush Presbyterian-St. Lukes Medical Center in Chicago, criticized the sale of worthless weight-control products through retail pharmacies. He said that pharmacists had a duty to investigate questionable claims, and should not sell bogus products [15].

Pharmacists are also the only recognized health professionals who sell tobacco products, which cause more death and years of lost life than any other consumer product. Although many pharmacies have stopped offering cigarettes, many others still carry them.

In March 1998, at a symposium sponsored by the Good Housekeeping Institute, former FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler, M.D, J.D., sharply criticized the willingness of a neighborhood chain drugstore to sell supplements whose labels made improper claims. Next to the pharmacy counter, he had counted 26 displays with such claims as: “targeted mind improvement,” “advanced memory and concentration formula,” memory support complex,” helps increase serotonin level,” “immune enhancer,” “leg health,” “cartilage rejuvenation and repair,” and “As featured in the book, ‘The Arthritis Cure.'” He told the symposium audience:

I wonder whether many pharmacists really have given up their roles as health professionals, as pharmacists. Maybe they’re no longer in control of the store. Maybe they’re just behind the counter, and anything in front of that counter goes. But it’s time for that profession to take responsibility for what it’s selling [16].

The code of ethics of the American Pharmacists Association (APHA) does not state that pharmacists have a duty to prevent dubious products from lining their shelves [17]. A few states have laws declaring it illegal for pharmacists to sell ineffective products, but these laws have never been applied to the sale of OTC products. In 1995, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy passed a resolution critical of homeopathy. Though commendable, this resolution has had no visible impact on pharmacy practice.

The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), which mainly represents pharmacists who work in hospitals and managed care programs, has issued a position statement on the use of dietary supplements which states (in part):

ASHP believes that the widespread, indiscriminate use of dietary supplements presents substantial risks to public health and that pharmacists have an opportunity and a professional responsibility to reduce those risks. . . .

ASHP believes that the criteria used to evaluate dietary supplements for inclusion in health-system formularies should be as rigorous as those established for nonprescription drugs and that the self-administered use of dietary supplements during a health-system stay may increase risks to patients and liabilities to health care professionals and institutions [18]

This statement is commendable, but I have seen no organized effort by pharmacists, their professional organizations, or their schools to raise the relevant educational or ethical standards.

W. Steven Pray, Ph.D., D.Ph., a professor at the Southwestern Oklahoma State University College of Pharmacy has concluded that pharmacists sell homeopathic products for three reasons: willful ignorance, blatant dishonesty, and overwhelming greed. He also notes that the APhA endorses homeopathic products by (a) permitting homeopathic sellers to rent booth space at its conventions, (b) providing proponents with a national forum that reaches APhA members, and (c) publishing book chapters and articles that fail to adequately criticize homeopathy [19] In another article, Pray notes that the word “quackery” has virtually disappeared from the vocabulary of pharmacists and that:

Like other professions, pharmacy is under tremendous external and internal pressure to accept and recommend products lacking proof of safety and efficacy, and not grounded in evidence-based medicine. Pharmacy colleges should include a required course in unproven medications and therapies. It should address the benefits of an evidence-based approach to medicine in general and to pharmaceutical care in particular. It should discuss the ethical dilemma inherent in recommending products lacking proof of safety and efficacy. When unproven systems are taught (eg, homeopathy), they must be clearly labeled as such and their departures from evidence-based medicine clarified for students.

Instead, he reports how, for more than ten years, nearly every communication channel through which pharmacists receive information about dietary supplements, herbs, and homeopathic products has portrayed them more favorably than they deserve. To counter this, he urges pharmacy schools to provide the naked truth in a course that minces no words and even asks students to complain to the FTC about misleading product advertising [20].

The Bottom Line

I believe that pharmacists have as much of an ethical duty to discourage the use of inappropriate products as physicians do to advise against unnecessary surgery or medical care. Very few pharmacists do so. Pharmacy journal editors ignore this problem. Hospital-based pharmacists generally exhibit a higher standard of practice, but very few of them are speaking out about the problems described in this article.

Pharmacists and their customers have millions of conversations per year about dietary supplements, herbs, and homeopathic products. Can you imagine what would happen to quackery in America if pharmacists discouraged inappropriate purchases of these products? Do you think that will ever happen?

  1. Some notes on the activities of Joanne Garneau. Pharmwatch Web site, June 13, 2011.
  2. Reference article under construction.
  3. Bell LS, Fairchild M. Evaluation of commercial multivitamin supplements. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 87:341-343, 1987.
  4. Bouts BA. The misuse of compounding by pharmacists. Quackwatch, Nov 26, 2005.
  5. FDA takes action against compounded menopause hormone therapy drugs. FDA news release, Jan 8, 2008.
  6. Edetate disodium (marketed as Endrate and generic products). FDA Public Health Advisory. Jan 16, 2008.
  7. The vitamin pushers. Consumer Reports 51:170-175, 1986.
  8. Nelson MV and others. A survey of pharmacists’ recommendations for food supplements in the U.S.A. and the U.K. Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics 15:131-139, 1990.
  9. Barrett S. Homeopathy: The ultimate fake. Quackwatch, Aug 23, 2009.
  10. Nelson MV, Bailie GR. Pharmacists’ perceptions of alternative health approaches: A comparison between U.S. and British pharmacists. Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics 15:141-146, 1990.
  11. Ranelli PL, Dickerson RN, White KG. Use of vitamin and mineral supplements by pharmacy students. American Journal of Hospital Pharmacy 50:674-678, 1993.
  12. Welna EM and others. Pharmacists’ personal use, professional practice behaviors, and perceptions regarding herbal and other natural products. Journal of the American Pharmacists Association 43:602-611, 2003.
  13. Harris IM and others. Attitudes toward complementary and alternative medicine among pharmacy faculty and students. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 70(6):1-7, 2006.
  14. Nelson MV. Promotion and selling of unnecessary food supplements: Quackery or ethical pharmacy practice? American Pharmacy NS28(10):34-36, 1988.
  15. O’Donnell JT. Nutrition Fraud: Vitamins and obesity—pharmacists’ responsibilities. Journal of Pharmacy Practice 1:131-145, 1998.
  16. Kessler DA. Why the FDA does not approve supplements. Speech at Good Housekeeping Institute Consumer Safety Symposium: Dietary Supplements & Herbal Remedies. New York, March 3, 1998.
  17. American Pharmaceutical Association. Code of Ethics for Pharmacists. Oct 27, 1994.
  18. ASHP statement on the use of dietary supplements. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacists 61:1707-1711, 2004 (reviewed and considered “still appropriate” in 2009).
  19. Pray WS. Why pharmacists should not sell homeopathic products. Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies 15:280-283, 2010.
  20. Pray WS. Ethical, scientific, and educational concerns with unproven medications. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 70(6), article 141, 2006.

This article was revised on July 19, 2011.