France’s state health system will cease reimbursing homeopathic treatment from 2021, the government has announced, in a bombshell to the alternative medicine industry.
The decision followed a damning report on homeopathy by the national health authority published in June, which concluded that there was not enough hard proof homeopathy worked.
Homeopathic treatments are highly popular in France and is on sale on all pharmacies while doctors often prescribe them in addition to conventional treatments.
The move comes two years after NHS England issued guidance instructing doctors not to hand out prescriptions for homeopathic treatments, which chief executive Simon Stevens described as “at best a placebo” and “a misuse of scarce NHS funds”.
Agnes Buzyn, health minister and a highly respected former doctor herself, said French social security reimbursement to patients for homeopathic products, which currently stand at 30 per cent – will be cut to 15 per cent in 2020 and then to phased out to zero in 2021.
"I have decided to start the process for complete non-reimbursement," Ms Buzyn told Le Parisien newspaper.
The transition period would enable patients and pharmaceutical companies to adapt to the new system, she insisted.
Late June, France’s National Authority for Health (HAS) baldy stated in an explosive report that homoeopathy had "not scientifically demonstrated sufficient effectiveness to justify a reimbursement”.
Ms Buzyn said the government move, which was reportedly given the green light by President Emmanuel Macron himself, came despite intense “pressure” from industrial lobbies and many French to continue reimbursing such treatment.
More than a million people have signed a petition against the changes.
The move should not stop doctors prescribing homeopathic medicines or patients from buying the, said Ms Buzyn, but the state could no longer pay for “placebos”.
"Those who want to buy homeopathic medicines will continue to do so but it will not be based on the public health system nor paid for by French taxpayers," added France’s Europe affairs minister Amelie de Montchalin.
According to official figures from 2018, social security paid back €126.8 million (£) for homoeopathic treatment out of an overall total of €20 billion for medicines that year.
Ms Buzyn had reportedly insisted that the government’s scientific credibility was on the line and that she could resign if the recommendations of the HAS were ignored.
But the announcement sparked howls of disapproval from French company Boiron, the world leader in homeopathic products, which called the move "incomprehensible and incoherent" and accused the government of "amateurism".
It demanded crisis talks with Mr Macron, saying it would do “everything to fight” the decision.
Ms Buzyn also had to contend with discontent from opponents of homeopathy, who said that if it was deemed ineffective should be removed from the state reimbursement list with immediate effect.
"Going to 15 per cent makes no sense," said Francois Morel of Fakemed, a doctors’ anti-homeopathy lobby group.
"The HAS has made clear the absence of any specific effectiveness of homeopathy," he added.
France has been reimbursing homeopathic medicines since its medical council recognised them in 1974.
The alternative medical practice of homeopathy is normally said to have been founded in 1796 by German physician Samuel Hahnemann, who coined the mantra "like cures like" – the belief that a substance that causes certain symptoms can also help to remove those symptoms.
In the UK, Prince Charles has been a vocal supporter of homeopathy for decades, making impassioned speeches at the World Health Assembly and British Medical Association.
Despite NHS guidelines not to administer it, data released in April showed UK doctors handed out nearly 3,300 prescriptions for “homeopathic preparations” last year, costing the NHS a total of more than £55,000- the equivalent of more than two full-time nurse salaries.
The French decision could have a knock-on effect in Germany where some 7,000 homeopathic doctors are registered and the centre-Left SPD has been pushing for a refund ban.