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Pharmacists: Questionable Practices

William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.

Drugstore pharmacists play special roles as health professionals. Like other pharmacists, they occupy an important point of a triangle with physicians and patients by providing information about medications. Unlike practitioners in hospital pharmacies, drugstore pharmacists are also engaged in rough-and-tumble businesses that must compete with health-food stores, supermarkets, and others who sell dietary supplements, nonprescription remedies, and weight-loss products. As members of an ethical health profession, drugstore pharmacists are faced with a dilemma. They must survive in an environment in which:

Pharmacists are generally well educated enough to tell the difference between products based upon science and those that are scams. But the law of supply and demand is very real, and they know that if dubious products aren't available in their drugstores, consumers will simply get them elsewhere. Pharmacists may even satisfy their consciences by reasoning that by keeping their customers away from health food stores will lessen exposure to misguided zealots who give dangerous health advice. Pharmacists have responded to this dilemma in one of the following ways:

Revolution. Abandon the drugstore business to operate professional pharmacies which can maintain scientific standards. In this setting, pharmacists function as advisors to physicians on pharmacology, new medications, drug interactions, and serve patients as counselors on why and how to take medications. Drugstores would no longer sell prescriptions, but would be variety stores which also sell nonprescription drugs and home health supplies.

Education/Activist. Post disclaimers throughout the store that will help educate consumers about dubious products. Some may also undermine quackery by underselling the competition on dubious products thus depriving them of profiting from quackery. For example: Prior to the 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act when patent medicines were the archetypes of today's dubious dietary supplements, herbal and homeopathic remedies, Topeka, Kansas druggist George (Pop) Stansfield hung a large sign in his store stating: "We sell patent medicines, but do not recommend them." Stansfield received nationwide attention for his honesty [1].

Capitulation. Accept the current dismal situation and passively sell whatever jobbers bring into the drugstore. The downside of this approach is that prudent self-care guidelines advise consumers to avoid drugstores that sell homeopathic products, poorly labeled herbal remedies, and dietary supplements that lack rationality and utility. Wise retailers will put positive customers relations by helping them separate fact from fiction ahead of the short-term profits of exploiting health fads.

Exploitation. Exploit the public's fascination with health fads and sell whatever the law of supply and demand dictates. This is being done in the name of New Age Drugstores, selling homeopathics, offering nutritional counseling services that promote dietary supplement sales, and more.

NCAHF believes that pharmacists are challenged more than any other group of health professionals, because they must decide between ethical conduct, the lure of profiting from quackery, and the public's well-being. A survey found that pharmacists ranked second only to the clergy by the public for ethics and honesty [2]. NCAHF believes that this level of public trust is worth preserving.


  1. Carson G. One For A man, Two For A Horse. Doubleday, 1961.
  2. Recommendation, Policy Committee, American Pharmaceutical Association, on supplement usage. American Pharmacist NS28:61-62, 1988

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© 1994, National Council Against Health Fraud.
With proper citation, this article may be reproduced for noncommercial purposes

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This article was revised on August 31, 2001.